Russia vs Sweden | Saturday 05 September | Otkrytie Arena | 18:00
Russia’s sacking of Don Fabio Capello was the punctuation point on a litany of disappointments that have plagued the Russian national team ever since the departure of Guus Hiddink. They look likely to miss out on qualification and simply have to win this encounter against the tournament savvy Swedish national side.
To Win (90mins)
Leonid Slutsky, the CSKA Moscow head coach, has taken charge of the Russian outfit in the wake of the tumultuous dismissal of Fabio Capello. He has already tinkered with the shape of the side, bringing in the talented Ural midfielder Alexander Erokhin - a player no doubt too untested for the more pragmatically minded Fabio Capello. Russian renegade Fyodor Smolov has also been reintegrated with the side following a good season with FC Krasnodar. They will also be boosted by the return of Russian prodigy Denis Cheryshev, whose return from injury may just be the thing to give this slightly beleaguered side a push towards qualification. Kokorin’s international return of just eight goals in 32 matches will need to improve if they stand a realistic chance of qualification, and I expect him to benefit from the presence of Cheryshev.
Erik Hamren’s side have won three of their last four matches and know that if they sneak a positive result here they will surely be booking a place in France next year. Sweden will be without the suspended Kim Kallstrom, whose ability to coordinate the midfield would have proved invaluable in this testing away fixture. That being said, the iconic figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic should provide the requisite self-belief necessary for any side to succeed. Laarson brings experience as well as tactical guile, which will serve them well when Russia have possession of the ball, which they should have for large portions of the game. Zengin and Berg offer good width for Ibra to exploit while Wernbloom and Ekdal will be charged with containing the infield runs of Cheryshev and Shatov. While I believe that Slutsky has managed to bring some vitality back into the side since his appointment, I feel that it will be too little too late after a desperate early qualifying campaign. Russia will likely control the ball for large portions of the game, but Kokorin lacks the penetrative thrust of Monsieur Ibrahimovic.
VERDICT: Draw 21/10
An valuable draw for the Swedes, with Ibra likely to be the catalyst, holding the ball up and generating incisive counter-attacks. Russia are a side that needs a dramatic identity shift, one which will likely take some time to instill. A 1-1 result seems about right.