Russia vs. Slovakia: 6 Things We Learned
Russia got their World Cup warm-up programme underway with a 1-0 win over Slovakia in St. Petersburg on Monday.
A late header from substitute Aleksandr Kerzhakov was enough to earn Fabio Capello’s men a victory in the evening sunshine at the Petrovsky Stadium.
In what was a low-key affair, neither side created much in the way of clear-cut chances, but it was the home side who finished stronger.
And despite a stubborn defensive display from Slovakia, Kerzhakov was allowed time and space to nod in the winner with just eight minutes remaining.
So with 22 days to go until Russia’s opening Group H game against South Korea in Brazil, we take a look at six things that were learnt from Monday’s friendly.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov Will Have a Part to Play in Brazil
While Aleksandr Kokorin is expected to start in Brazil at the sharp end of a front three, Monday’s friendly suggested Aleksandr Kerzhakov could play an important role.
His introduction from the bench with a little over quarter of an hour remaining revitalised Russia in an attacking sense, with the Zenit St. Petersburg forward netting in front of his home crowd.
In a positional sense, the 31-year-old still has a lot to offer, and he proved his worth when Maksim Kanunnikov’s pinpoint cross found him free and unmarked.
The striker’s close-range header into the corner gave Jan Mucha no chance and handed Fabio Capello a well-timed reminder of his talents as a finisher as well as a leader of the line.
Fabio Capello Needs More from Alan Dzagoev
While much is expected of Alan Dzagoev in a creative sense this summer, the CSKA Moscow man will need to find his feet quickly in the build-up to Brazil.
Playing as part of a midfield three against Slovakia, the 23-year-old looked comfortable on the ball but offered little going forward before he was replaced by Maksim Kanunnikov at the break.
Admittedly, there was no great urgency or quality on display from either side on Monday, and those who watch him regularly have rarely called his talents into question.
But the Beslan-born midfielder must hit form at just the right time if he’s to have a positive influence at the World Cup, and consistency in Russia’s warm-up friendlies is a must.
Oleg Shatov Is Emerging as a Key Player
As well as the likes of Vasili Berezutski at the back and Igor Denisov in the middle, Oleg Shatov is becoming a crucial cog in Fabio Capello’s Russian machine.
Full of industry and energy, the Zenit St. Petersburg star was a man-of-the-match contender on home soil against Slovakia and played his part defensively as well as going forward.
The 23-year-old has made great strides since his international debut in February last year and showed versatility in his wide-left position at the Petrovsky Stadium.
Shatov’s enthusiasm will be key in Brazil, and his contribution could have a huge bearing on the balance of Capello’s front three.
Capello Could Give Youth a Chance at the World Cup
With a number of Russia’s starting XI against Slovakia over the age of 30, Fabio Capello is already looking beyond this summer’s tournament. The door is open for the squad’s youngsters.
Four members of the team were over 30 and with others in their late 20s, the manager’s brief will be to plan for the 2018 World Cup as hosts as well as this summer in Brazil.
Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski form a solid base at centre-back, and the experience of the CSKA Moscow pair will be priceless over the course of the competition.
But longer term, Capello will need to blood their replacements, and he may be tempted to start in South America next month depending on how the group pans out.
Russia’s Passing Game Needs to Improve
Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich aside, the lack of height in Russia’s side was as clear as the St. Petersburg sky on Monday. The impact of their passing game will make or break their World Cup.
The central-defensive pair pose a great threat from set pieces, but the physical makeup of the team suggests possession will form the basis of any success.
Against the well-organised Slovakians, Russia looked tentative for long spells and failed to elaborate on a 4-3-3 formation that ultimately created little.
The home side let themselves down in the final third, and though the fixture was a friendly in every sense of the word, they’ll need more zip and invention going forward if they’re to make waves in Brazil.
Substitutes Made Their Point
One element that will have pleased Fabio Capello greatly on Monday was the way his team finished the game, and that was thanks largely to his late substitutions.
Russia looked positive and strong during the final 15 minutes, and the impact made by Aleksei Ionov, Maksim Kanunnikov and match-winner Aleksandr Kerzhakov was sizeable.
The former England manager looks to have settled on his starting XI and will work to improve them as a unit over the coming weeks before the big kick-off.
But the fact he has attractive alternatives on the bench will keep everyone on their toes and give him great piece of mind as they head to Brazil.