What a difference four years makes. At UEFA EURO 2008 Russia started with a 4-1 loss to Spain and confidence in the camp was low. Four years on and it's sky high after opening with victory against the Czech Republic by the same scoreline. Early signs suggest this team have the potential to emulate their run to the semi-finals in Austria and Switzerland.
That was not the only link with four years ago. Russia, now under a different Dutch coach, Dick Advocaat, played the same fluid, incisive football that became the trademark of his predecessor, Guus Hiddink's reign. At times Russia were a delight to watch. The attacking trio of Alan Dzagoev, Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov were a joy and the Czech defence had no answer to their excellent movement.
However, Russia are today a much more complete outfit. Their ability to keep the ball also caused their opponents problems. Igor Denisov excelled in breaking up attacks, while in Roman Shirokov, they have found a goalscoring midfielder the envy of many sides around the world.
A couple of months ago, Dzagoev's participation in this tournament was in doubt after he broke a bone in his foot. In fact it wasn't even certain the 21-year-old would play against the Czechs considering Marat Izmailov has been breathing down his neck. However, the PFC CSKA Moskva forward repaid the faith shown in him by Advocaat, scoring twice and being named man of the match.
"It was very difficult after my injury and I was only given a chance after Marat picked up an injury in the game with Italy [last weekend]," he said. "I would really like to thank my coach for giving me a chance."
Aside from the three points, perhaps the most pleasing thing for Advocaat was the performance of Arshavin. Russia's captain has endured a tough time at Arsenal FC, yet he rolled back the years with an excellent display and tormented the Czech defence throughout. "I think Andrey had a really good game and was trying hard throughout the match," said Advocaat. "I am really pleased with his performance."
Morale will be extremely high in the Russian camp, but they all understand that there is still a long way to go. Nevertheless, they head into Tuesday's Group A game against co-hosts Poland in buoyant mood and full of hope they can repeat their success of 2008.
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