Every time the World Cup rolls around we face a bit of a challenge in handicapping the host country. Unlike every other team in the field, they don't have to qualify. So, while every other national team has been playing life-and-death games, which make it easy for us to see where they are, the hosts are forced to rely on friendlies to round into form. The difference between a meaningful qualification game and a friendly is like the difference between a porterhouse and a chuck roast. Sometimes the task is easier than others - we knew what we were going to get with Brazil last time around because they are Brazil. Russia is far from a powerhouse, though - they made the last World Cup and the last European Championship but were lousy at both.
We will hopefully get a better sense in the next year about what to expect from this team - and it isn't likely that we need to be optimistic. Because they are playing at home, though, the crowd can have a big impact. It's just really challenging to figure them out. Here are three factors to consider when looking at this team and where they are at:
Roster: When you think of the top football in the world, you don't think of Russia's domestic leagues. They have some decent teams, but none are among the world's finest. The Russian squad that was named for the Confederations Cup does not have a single player on it who plays their club soccer outside of Russia. That just isn't the case for the top nations - they have players playing around the world in the best leagues against the best players.
This is a problem for a number of reasons. First, the big teams just vacuum up high-level talent, so the fact that no players have left brings into question the level of talent the team has. Second, with everyone playing in the same leagues they aren't playing against the highest level of players from day to day, they aren't being exposed to other ideas and approaches that can grow their games, and they aren't getting a chance to see and get comfortable playing against the stars of other teams. Third, because most of the players come from the Russian Premier League it is also very hard for us to handicap how good they really are and how they stack up to other teams. Fyodor Smolov, for example, is a sniper who has led the league in scorer multiple times, but what does that really mean, and how would it translate elsewhere? And fourth, because leagues tend to adapt similar styles - on defense for example - over time, players tend to play under and against the same types of styles and are less likely to be able to adapt to different approaches internationally. This lack of diversity is a really major concern.
There is some potential for guys to play elsewhere. Most notably, Roman Zobnin has had a lot of interest from Italian and German teams, but he is out for about six months with a torn ACL, which has slowed things down on that front - and which really hurts this team in the present.
Lack of meaningful games: The team hasn't played a game that mattered since Euro 2016 where they lost to Wales and Slovakia and played England to a draw. That is a problem both in terms of their development and our assessment. The Confederations Cup can often be handy for getting a sense of where host teams are at - when Brazil crushed Spain 3-0 in the finals in 2013, for example, we knew they were in a good place. This year's Confederations Cup, though, is just odd, and likely won't be too useful. Germany is resting many of their stars and has named a roster that features seven players making their international debut. Mexico limps in off a draw at home against the Americans that they absolutely should have won. Cameroon, Australia, and especially New Zealand are underwhelming squads that won't prove much one way or the other as an opponent to Russia. And Chile isn't playing great and won't tell us nearly as much as Argentina or Brazil would from South America. Portugal should be solid, but that's about it. It's a tournament that is going to be tough to draw meaning from - unless the Russians do really poorly. After that tournament the team will play friendlies and stadium test matches, but they will be far behind other teams in terms of live-fire development.
Head coach: Stanislav Cherchesov can't be accused of being a coward. He has made some bold moves since taking over the team following Euro 2016. He dispatched some players who were established on the team but weren't carrying their weight, and he has changed the defensive approach to the team significantly. He never played outside of Russia in his long career, though, and his most exotic posting as a coach was Warsaw. His career as a coach has been marked by landing high-profile gigs but then not lasting long in them. He is a pretty underwhelming 3-3-3 in nine games with the national squad, and good results - like a recent 3-0 win against Hungary in Budapest - have been matched by ugly results like a 2-0 loss to Ivory Coast at home.
Like so much else with this team, I wish that he had more of a global view. Really, I just wish that the Russians had decided to hire a better coach. That would sure make it easier to trust them.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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