Optimistic Russia target quarter-finals
Despite a poor record at major championships, optimistic Russian football chiefs are targeting a place in the quarter-finals for the national side at the World Cup.
Russia will be making their second appearance at the finals since the break-up of the Soviet Union and they are hopeful of doing much better than in 1994, when they were eliminated after the first round.
This time Russia have an easier draw -- hosts Japan, Belgium and Tunisia are their opponents in group H.
Nikita Symonyan, first deputy president of the Russian Football Association, said: "Our first task is to qualify for the second round. We think that is within our capabilities, though we take our rivals...very seriously."
If Russia do finish in the top two, they are likely to play either Brazil or Turkey in the second round for a place in the quarter-finals.
"We hope to qualify for the quarter-finals, which will give us an incentive to go further," Symonyan added.
On the face of it, Russia have reasons to be optimistic, having topped their group in qualifying, but their recent records in major tournaments, both at club and international level, suggest otherwise.
At the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Russia failed to make it past the group stage after losing to Brazil and Sweden in their first two matches.
A squad beset by internal disputes went some way to redeeming themselves in their final game, a 6-1 victory over Cameroon in which Oleg Salenko scored five goals -- a record tally by one player in a World Cup finals match.
At club level, Russian sides have struggled to make an impact on the European stage.
Spartak Moscow, the country's most successful club side over the past decade with eight domestic titles, have flattered to deceive in the Champions League, rarely making the knockout stages.
Spartak provide many of the players who wear the red, white and blue of Russia and the club's coach Oleg Romantsev also runs the national side.
Romantsev was in charge when Russia last reached a major tournament -- the 1996 European championship in England. Russia failed to win a game and finished last in their first-round group.
Russia subsequently failed to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in France after losing a playoff to Italy.
Despite their successful qualifying campaign for this year's tournament, Romantsev faces many problems. He has an ageing and slow defence, a predictable midfield and lacks the sort of powerful, speedy strikers who can trouble opponents.
Captain Viktor Onopko, defensive stopper Yuri Nikiforov and right-back Omari Tetradze are not getting any younger, having played together since the 1994 World Cup.
Alexander Mostovoi, who plays for Spanish side Celta Vigo, is a playmaker of genuine quality on his day but much-touted Spartak captain Yegor Titov has made little progress in recent years and 18-year-old Marat Izmailov looks too inexperienced.
In attack, Russia rely on Spartak striker Vladimir Beschastnykh, who top-scored for his side in the World Cup qualifiers with seven goals, including a hat-trick in the final game against Switzerland.
Goalkeeper Ruslan Nigmatullin has been one of the regular stars of the side but his form has suffered since his transfer to Italian Serie A team Verona.
Russian media have criticised Romantsev for continually excluding winger Rolan Gusev and goalkeeper Sergei Ovchinnikov, who play for Spartak's rival Moscow teams CSKA and Lokomotiv, from the national team. Both players have said Romantsev has ignored them for personal reasons.
Russia's weaknesses were on display during February's friendly in Dublin when a lacklustre performance saw them beaten 2-0 by Ireland with Titov and Beschastnykh both guilty of missing chances.
Nevertheless Alexander Tukmanov, general director of the Russian Football Union, remains upbeat about their prospects and says the team are determined to make up for their past disappointments.
"Our team is a combination of youth and experience. Our soccer is on the rise," he said.
"We are full of hope that we will play well in the World Cup tournament -- we didn't make the finals for eight years and we know it was our own fault."