In selecting his 12-man squad for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Portugal 2015™, Russia coach Mikhail Likhachev made just two changes from the team that won the world title at Tahiti 2013. After all, why revamp an ambitious team that has developed a knack of winning on the big occasion?
Aside from Tuesday’s 7-6 defeat to Tahiti in their final group match in Espinho, Russia’s performances in their title defence have justified Likhachev’s continued faith in his players.
Though that reverse ended a 14-match unbeaten run for the Sbornaya in World Cup matches – the second longest in the history of the competition – and consigned them to a quarter-final date with Brazil, the fact is that Russia went into the game having already qualified for the knockout stages and remain just as strong trophy candidates as they were before.
The two new men in Likhachev’s squad for Portugal 2015 are goalkeeper Ivan Ostrovskii and defender Artur Paporotnyi, though “new” is not exactly the right word to describe the latter. While Ostrovskii is appearing at his first world finals, Paporotnyi formed part of the squad that won Russia’s maiden world title at Ravenna 2011.
A deserving case
“Why wasn’t I in Tahiti? Because that’s what the coach decided,” the powerful defender told FIFA.com, proving just as forthright with his words as he is on the sand.
“That’s all in the past now, though. All I care about now is playing and winning,” added the 30-year-old, who plays along with four other members of the Russia squad for St. Petersburg outfit FC Kristall in the country’s highly-competitive league.
Whatever Likhachev’s reasons for not selecting Paporotnyi two years ago, as he himself explained, he is delighted with the player’s current form.
“Artur has come on an awful lot in the last two years,” the coach told FIFA.com. “He’s a defender but he’s also able to get forward and attack. He’s got a powerful shot and he’s a very useful option for us at free-kicks. I know he can still improve the way he reads the game, but I’m very satisfied with him.”
Comparing Russia’s 2011 team with the current crop, Paporotnyi, who has played in all three of his side’s games in Portugal so far and scored against the Tahitians, said: “The make-up of the team is very similar, as is the style and the results so far. I think the only difference is that we’ve got more experience.”
As for the 25-year-old Ostrovskii, who also plays for FC Kristall, Portugal 2015 is a whole new experience, as he told FIFA.com: “I’m proud to be among the best 12 players in my country. Every match is an exciting and historic moment for me and I’m just trying to enjoy the whole thing.”
Though the World Cup is only the goalkeeper’s second major tournament after the recent European Games in Baku, he feels perfectly in tune with his surroundings.
“Things have been easy for me because I played at the Games and because I’ve been training with the squad for a while, several of whom are team-mates of mine at Kristall,” said the No12, who made appearances in Russia’s opening two matches. “In any case, my job is a simple one: I just have to come on and make saves.”
So what does Likhachev make of his second 'keeper? “He has a very different style to (Andrey) Bukhlitskiy, but he’s young, he had a superb season in the league and he deserved his chance in the team,” he replied.
“Mentally he’s very calm and he has excellent reflexes. He needs to keep on working hard to improve a few aspects of his game, but I think he’s got a long future ahead of him in this sport.”
Ostrovskii and Paporotnyi both agreed that Russia’s slip-up against Tahiti will not undermine their confidence.
“Anything but. It can only make us stronger,” said the goalkeeper. The pair also share the same opinion on the last-eight tie against Brazil, a match many predicted would be the final.
“If you want to be the champions, then you have to go and beat everyone anyway,” said Paporotnyi. “We’ve done it before and we can do it again.”