After 14 years, Russia return to the UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals. Despite four straight wins at the start of qualifying, it was a tough campaign for Nikolai Pisarev's men. A 1-0 defeat in Portugal, followed by draws against Albania and Moldova, nearly deprived them of top spot in the group. The play-off games against the Czech Republic tested Russian nerves too, but they held on to emerge 4-2 aggregate winners.
FC Anji Makhachkala striker Fedor Smolov and Real Madrid CF winger Denis Cheryshev proved to be Russia's go-to men throughout qualification, especially at its key moments. Smolov scored seven times in nine appearances while Cheryshev provided several assists and also struck two beautiful goals against Poland to help Russia to a 4-1 victory. The final squad has also been supplemented by the late addition of Alan Dzagoev, the PFC CSKA Moskva attacking midfielder who has been capped 27 times at senior level, and finished joint top scorer at last year's UEFA EURO 2012.
Reaching the U21 finals is the first big coaching achievement for Pisarev, who took charge of the team in September 2010. The 44-year-old is confident that they can be competitive at this level. "I am optimistic about our chances in Israel," the former FC Spartak Moskva striker said. "We are in Europe's top eight which is already a small breakthrough for Russian football. We have the backbone of a team – which is good – and our principles remain the same: only the strongest will play [for us]. Of course they need to play regularly for their clubs."
Preperations have not gone ideally, however, with three defeats to fellow finalists being inflicted in 2013. February's 2-1 loss against Norway was followed by defeats to Italy, and fellow Group B inhabitants Spain, reminding the side it will be no easy task to progress to the semi-finals.
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