Russia go into Wednesday's UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifier against England seeking three vital points and buoyed by Guus Hiddink's decision to sign a new contract.
Russia sit third in Group E with 18 points, five behind their opponents but with a game in hand – although, with three matches left, time is running out for Hiddink's men. There may be no room for manoeuvre, yet thanks to the coach's decision to pledge his future to the cause until the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals, the team have few distractions as they chase the victory that would maintain their realistic aspirations of reaching next year's tournament. "I like this job and I like Russia and those are important reasons for me to prolong my deal," said Hiddink.
England will be in for a new experience at the Luzhniki Stadium, the venue for the 2007/08 UEFA Champions League final. Although that game will be played on a specially laid grass pitch, Wednesday's qualifier will take place on artificial turf and, even if the visitors practised on similar surfaces before leaving for Moscow, the hosts are hoping the surface will give them an edge. "For England, having to play on this kind of pitch is unsettling enough," said striker Andrei Arshavin. "Whether they will get used to it or not, is another question."
Russia will also be able to rely on substantial home support, with more than 500,000 fans having applied for tickets. The country's biggest stadium has been sold out for only one previous international, the 1-1 draw against Ukraine in October 1999 which ended their UEFA EURO 2000™ qualifying attempt. With that 75,000 crowd likely to be eclipsed by 78,000 supporters at the Luzhniki, hopes are high of a happier outcome this time round.
However, Hiddink – who is without first-choice right-winger Vladimir Bystrov and his most obvious replacement Ivan Saenko – has plenty to ponder. Russia may have thrived against F.Y.R. Macedonia and Estonia, but they drew twice with Croatia and were held at home by Israel before September's 3-0 defeat at Wembley left their qualification bid hanging by a thread. "We need to win but it's not so easy to do that," said the coach, whose charges have failed to score in three matches against Croatia and England. "England are better and have more confidence. We need to score but we should not get carried away with attacking – we also need to keep a close watch on their leading players."
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