By Pavle Gognidze & Greg Demetriou
In front of a sell-out crowd in the first official international at the revamped Lokomotiv stadium in Moscow, a new-look Russia saw off the Republic of Ireland with a 4-2 victory on Saturday to take an early stranglehold in Group 10. It was the first time the Irish had conceded four goals in a game for 17 years.
Naturally, Russian optimism abounded after the match, not least because all but one of the team were based with domestic clubs. "We desperately needed a good start, and we managed to do it," said coach Valeri Gazzaev after his first competitive match in charge. "Now everybody understands that with such a team, we can be optimistic about the future."
Mood of gloom
It was a different story in the days leading up to the game. Moscow had been enveloped in smog caused by peat bog fires to the east of the city, and there was also a mood of gloom when it came to considering the national team's prospects. Not least in the wake of failing to make it beyond the first stage at the FIFA World Cup in the summer.
Key men missing
To make matters worse, injuries robbed Gazzaev of captain Yegor Titov, Marat Izmailov and Ruslan Pimenov, while star striker Dmitri Sytchev had been banned for four months for refusing to play for his club FC Spartak Moskva.
Indeed, the coach's woes deepened just before kick-off, when stand-in captain Alexei Smertin also dropped out, leaving the armband for Sergei Semak. However, this meant a chance for a host of inexperienced, but, crucially, determined individuals from less fashionable clubs. For example, Kryla Sovetov Samara's young forward Andrei Kariaka and SC Rotor Volgograd defensive midfield player Eugeni Aldonin, both of whom gave their all in a victory that also owed much to the crowd's unstinting support.
"I would like to deeply thank the fans that came out to support us," said Russia goalkeeper Sergei Ovchinnikov. "They were not just the 12th man for us, but the 13th, 14th and 15th as well." The home fans made a tremendous noise to support their team, particularly raising the volume when the Irish scored to make it 2-1 and then 3-2.
No way back
Two goals in five first-half minutes from Kariaka and Vladimir Beschastnykh had set Russia on their way. Gary Doherty pulled one back for the Irish in the 69th minute but, crucially, Russia immediately went up the other end and scored a minute later through the excellent Alexander Kerzhakov. Clinton Morrison reduced the arrears again but there was no way back when Ireland's Phil Babb scored an own goal as time ran out.
For all their youthful vigour, much of Russia's success can also be attributed to the solid play of veteran defender Viktor Onopko. He made life difficult for Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, and then substitutes Morrison and Doherty, and ensured the team remained organised and followed orders. As team-mate Andrei Solomatin put it: "We won because we put the coach's ideas into reality."
The Russian press were pleased too. "On Saturday we all watched the birth of a new Russia team," the daily Izvestia said, adding: "The young Russian players exposed a large number of drawbacks, but these fell into the background in view of the self-assured, battling game led by a new generation of footballers."
Pride and passion
While there is rightly some caution over whether or not Russia will make it to Portugal in two years' time, not least with trips to Ireland and home and away meetings with Switzerland, Albania and Georgia to come, goalscorer Kerzhakov summed up the pride and passion felt in Saturday's victory.
"It is only the beginning," he said. "But I believe with all my heart that Russia will lead the group." As the smog lifts over the capital, Russia are looking to a bright future once again.
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