With nearest challengers Denmark next up for Group 2 leaders Russia, coach Nikolai Pisarev is hoping his crop of unheralded youngsters can close in on the Czech finals.
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Nikolai Pisarev has shown lessons have been learnt after Russia's flying start to UEFA European Under-21 Championship qualifying. Following losses in all three of the country's games at the 2013 finals the side have bounced back in style and are undefeated, leading Group 2 as nearest challengers Denmark provide the next test on Tuesday.
With the team's stand-out names from the summer – Alan Dzagoev, Oleg Shatov, Fedor Smolov and Denis Cheryshev – all having graduated to the senior ranks, there is a fresh look to Pisarev's outfit. The coach was touted as a target for several clubs but pledged his future to the U21s and is determined to lead them to the 2015 finals in the Czech Republic. Some, he hopes, will then excel for the seniors when the FIFA World Cup takes place in Russia in 2018.
"At the moment I am totally focused on my task within the Football Union of Russia," said the 44-year-old former international forward. "After that we will see, it could be all or nothing – I could get an offer from Juventus or get fired by the RFS! The World Cup in 2018 is a major motivation for me. I live with this idea and want to be a part of it in some way."
Pisarev's major focus in the short term is his side's current form, and he believes a lack of first-team football is affecting his players' chances following Friday's 3-3 draw with Bulgaria. "Our team made some silly mistakes in defence, some childish errors. I think it is time to start playing senior football. Players of this age should play on a regular basis at their clubs and that would decrease the number of such kind of mistakes."
With FC Anji Makhachkala forward Pavel Solomatin the only regular Russian top-flight starter in the current squad, and Roman Emelyanov appearing consistently in Ukraine with FC Illychivets Mariupil, the squad is mainly built around reserve-team players and those out on loan at lower-league clubs.
In that context, Konstantin Bazelyuk's rapid progress is surprising. The 20-year-old has scored five goals in three qualifiers, form which caught the eye of Leonid Slutski, his coach at PFC CSKA Moskva, to give the forward a chance. On for less than 60 seconds, he scored the winner against FC Rostov on his league debut last month.
Bazelyuk is likely to start on Tuesday and Pisarev hopes he will make the difference in a game which could prove decisive in a tight section. "Our group is very equal," said Pisarev. "Almost every team is able to get points against every opponent, each team can cause an upset. The major battle for the play-off place is ahead, everybody is still involved and has a chance."