A chance to improve

Russia is returning to football’s biggest stage after a gap of 12 years. Unlike the former USSR, a powerhouse in football that had reached the quarterfinals thrice (1958, 1962 & 1970) and the semifinals in 1966, Russia did not even qualify for the last two editions of the World Cup while in 1994 and 2002, it went out of the tournament in the first round.

This time, grouped with Belgium, South Korea and Algeria, the team has a chance to improve on its performances and qualify for the second round behind Belgium, the dark horse, from Group H.

Without the stars of the former Soviet Republics, it has been a big struggle for Russia in finding quality young players. Though Russia is a squad of veterans, only one of them, Alexander Kerzhakov, has played in a World Cup before, having come in as a late substitute in 2002 Korea-Japan.

Russia will host the 2018 World Cup. Italian Fabio Capello, who had coached AC Milan to its 1994 Champions League triumph and England during its disastrous campaign at the last World Cup, has been given charge of the team, ranked No. 18 in the world, until the 2018 edition.

The Russians have a tendency to crack under pressure and their ‘ageing’ defence — Sergey Ignashevich is 34 and his central defensive partner Vasili Berezutskiy will be 32 in June — could be a worry against the quick South Koreans.

The 23-year-old midfielder, Alan Dzagoev, a technically gifted footballer and one of CSKA Moscow’s key players, and the 23-year-old striker, Alexander Kokorin, hailed as the most talented young footballer in the country, are among the players to follow.