Russia hope to overachieve under Slutsky despite difficulties

Russia face England, Slovakia and Wales in Group B. Here's a look at their squad and how they will fare at Euro 2016.

At a glance

Russia will enjoy the change of atmosphere and would love to dream of repeating their Euro 2008 semifinal fairytale, but also understand that such a scenario is very unlikely.

Home view

Less than a year ago, Russia hit rock bottom. Former coach Fabio Capello should have resigned after the World Cup group stage exit, but he stayed on amid protests from all corners. The atmosphere was negative in the extreme, fans hardly supported the national team, and following the dreadful home defeat at the hands of Austria, there was a real possibility of failing to qualify for Euro 2016 from a fairly easy group.

The Italian was belatedly fired after the team's first six qualifying matches and replaced in August 2015 by CSKA Moscow coach Leonid Slutsky, who managed to turn the teams' fortunes around. Not only did Russia win all of their final four fixtures and qualified directly, avoiding the playoffs, but smiles returned to their faces as well. Slutsky promised to bring the national team closer to people, and they even participated in a popular TV show last month. "We want to be as open to public as possible," the coach said.

Fans know only too well that Russia are limited, and the problems are easy for all to see, but there is a positive vibe about this team, and they are likeable for the first time since 2008. This is the most important development ahead of hosting the World Cup in 2018, and the nation is starting to get excited. A good performance in France will be greeted with enthusiasm, but nobody can promise such an outcome.

Star man

This is where the problems start. Back in October, it was crystal clear that midfielder Roman Shirokov, the country's most creative player by a distance, was the ultimate star. However, the captain barely played for CSKA under Slutsky in the spring, and his form is doubtful -- he might not even be in the starting lineup. With central midfielder Alan Dzagoev injured in the very last league game and out of the tournament, finding a true star becomes rather difficult.

That is why Igor Akinfeev should be chosen here. The keeper was at fault twice in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, thus taking a fair share of the blame for early elimination. But this is the right time to make amends for those mishaps. Akinfeev was benched at Euro 2012, and thus the current tournament could be his first positive experience with the national team since 2008. He has been in superb form for CSKA lately, making an astonishing double-save in the dying minutes of the last game at Rubin Kazan to secure the championship title. Could he continue in the same fashion in France?

Potential pitfalls

Pitfalls are virtually everywhere. Sergei Ignashevich and Vasily Berezutsky are vastly experienced in central defence, but both are slow, and stopping England and Wales' speedy forward lines could be beyond them. There is no good candidate for the left-back spot, and even nominal midfielder Dmitry Torbinsky was tried out there. Dzagoev left a huge void in central midfield, while Igor Denisov had a disastrous season at relegated Dinamo Moscow. It is unclear whether Pavel Mamayev is good enough to be a starting playmaker if Shirokov is benched, while Artem Dzyuba needs good supply to be effective up front, and Aleksandr Kokorin didn't get a lot of playing time for Zenit in the spring.

Overall, the team lacks true international class all over the field. There are no new Arshavins, and Russia must play as a unit in order to overachieve. The team spirit is good, though, just like under Guus Hiddink in 2008, and that brings back some good memories.

Predicted finish

Russia are in a tight group with England, Wales and Slovakia, and could potentially finish bottom. That won't be surprising at all. Had Capello still been on the bench, that would have been the only logical prediction with this squad. Let us be more positive with Slutsky, though. How about reaching the quarterfinals?