Though captain Andrei Arshavin tried to play down hopes leading up to the game by arguing that his Russian players “lack too much speed to go far,” the evidence of Friday’s 4-1 mauling of the Czech Republic proved that while the four-time finalists may not be as fleet of foot as some other sides, they certainly have the skills to bewitch and bewilder many of those that they’ll meet down the road, starting with Poland on Tuesday.
The surprise package of Euro 2008, which reached the semi-finals on the back of its impressive array of attacking talent, may have developed a more robust presence at the back, conceding just four goals in 10 qualifying games, although facing opponents like Ireland and Slovakia was every bit as educational as meeting the toothless Czechs, which is to say, not very much.
But while there will undoubtedly be greater tests to come, the opening win has the Russians profiting most from the 1-1 draw of its Group A rivals Poland and Greece earlier in the day, opening up a two-point advantage at the top and putting it on a clear course for the knockout stages.
It will take a staunch side to stop the seemingly endless flow of red that relentlessly pours out of Russia’s side of the field. Arshavin may have endured a torrid three or so years since he lit up the previous championships in Austria and Switzerland, but now safely ensconced, on loan, with Zenit St. Petersburg, where nearly a third of the entire Russian national team ply their trade, he appeared back to his best.
Goal-scoring may not be the automatic process that it once was for the 30-year-old – that four-goal sortie at Anfield against Liverpool seems a lifetime ago – but he is more than willing to turn provider these days, roving across the field and continually interchanging with the other members of the front three.
But while Arshavin was pulling many of the strings, it was another member of the attack – 21-year-old Alan Dzagoev – who provided most of the finishing touches.
Considered by many as the future of the Russian national team, the CSKA Moscow man scored the first and third goals for the men in red, and could easily had more.
Three in front after 79 minutes, the Russians even showed their strength in depth when former Tottenham Hotspur man Roman Pavlyuchenko delicately weaved his way into position to lash a shot past Petr Cech’s outstretched hand and into the roof of the net.
He may no longer play in the English Premier League – having moved to Lokomotiv Moscow – but then few of this Russian lineup do with the oil money on offer in their homeland. Based on this showing, they won’t be considered dark horses to win the tournament for long.