Russia's Key Weapon and Achilles Heel at the 2014 World Cup

Dan SheridanContributor IJune 11, 2014

Igor Akinfeev
Igor AkinfeevMichael Regan/Getty Images

With a matter of hours to go until the 2014 World Cup kicks off in Brazil, Fabio Capello is putting the finishing touches to his Russia squad ahead of their Group H opener.

And with just two defeats blotting his copybook in the 20 games since he took over almost two years ago, the ex-England manager has every reason to be confident.

All eyes will be on highly rated forward Aleksandr Kokorin and playmaker Alan Dzagoev, while solidity at the back will be a major factor against first opponents South Korea as well as Belgium and Algeria.

But deficiencies in the middle could well hamper their efforts, so as the clock ticks down, Bleacher Report takes a look at the key weapon that could ignite Russia’s tournament, and the Achilles' heel that could derail it.


Key Weapon

While Russia have chopped and changed personnel in an attacking sense in the lead up to the World Cup, at the back they boast one of the most formidable defences in the tournament.

Populated mainly by CSKA Moscow players, Fabio Capello’s rear guard let in just five goals in 10 qualifying matches, and have conceded only once during their three warm-up fixtures.

The centre-half pairing of Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich provide a solid base, and with over 170 international caps between them, bring a wealth of experience to the table.

Aleksei Kozlov (left)
Aleksei Kozlov (left)Uncredited/Associated Press/Associated Press

They can also draw on over 10 years of know-how as CSKA teammates, and between the posts behind them, fellow Armeitsy colleague Igor Akinfeev provides the last line of defence.

Revered across Europe as one of the best goalkeepers around, the 28-year-old has consistently snubbed the attentions of some of the world’s biggest clubs, and has worn the gloves for Russia for a decade as a consequence.

On the flanks, Dynamo Moscow’s Aleksei Kozlov has won praise at right-back since making his debut against Portugal last year, and provides good support for those further forward.

And on the left, Capello has a wealth of options, with utility man Andrei Eshchenko, Dmitri Kombarov and likely starter Georgi Schennikov—yet another CSKA star—all capable of holding their own.

In all, Russia’s World Cup fate will be decided by what happens at the other end of the pitch, but their defence could have a huge say on how long their Brazilian dream lasts.


Achilles’ Heel

Despite an indifferent campaign with Zenit St. Petersburg, Russia captain Roman Shirokov was billed as a crucial cog in the Russian machine in the build-up to Brazil 2014.

Russia captain Roman Shirokov will miss the World Cup
Russia captain Roman Shirokov will miss the World CupAlexander Mysyakin/Associated Press

A knee problem picked up in April was expected to have cleared up by the time the South American showcase came around, but last Friday brought some unwelcome news regarding the 32-year-old.

Despite missing warm-up fixtures with Slovakia and Norway, the midfielder had trained with the rest of the squad, only to be missing when the team sheet was produced for their final international friendly with Morocco.

And their worst fears were realised when news filtered through that the skipper had suffered a relapse and would miss the entirety of the World Cup following an operation this week.

Fabio Capello: “Shirokov is a very important member of Russia's squad but I hope that the rest of the players will be able to perform at their best level in Brazil anyway.”

Fabio Capello handed Shirokov the armband during autumn last year, and his all-action displays as the hub of a three-man midfield saw Russia end their qualifying campaign strongly.

Now the Italian boss must plan for life without his talisman for the foreseeable future, and that could have huge consequences on his team’s progress.

His replacement, Rubin Kazan’s Pavel Mogilevets, has a solitary cap to his name having made his debut last month, while Shirokov has appeared some 41 times for his country.

But beyond the numbers, Capello’s biggest headache will be the tactical rethink triggered by Shirokov’s withdrawal.

Hell bent on a 4-3-3 formation largely propped up by the energy and drive of his captain, a late—and potentially unsettling—change of plan from the manager will need to be formulated, and quickly.