Pavel Pogrebnyak has been a fixture in the Russia line-up since 2006, although the striker’s international career has been a roller-coaster ride most of the time. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old is convinced the Sbornaja can soon regain their place at the top table of the world game.
The goal-getter and his team-mates are currently battling for a spot at UEFA EURO 2012 in Ukraine and Poland. Five games into their Group B campaign, Russia lie second in the table, level on points with leaders Slovakia and third-placed Republic of Ireland, in a neck-and-neck race for the automatic qualifying spot for the group winners, or a play-off place for the runners-up.
Stuttgart striker Pogrebnyak spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about a below-par season in the German Bundesliga, the current state of play in qualifying for EURO 2012, the key to future success for Russia, and experienced Dutch boss Dick Advocaat, whom Pogrebnayk feels could be a pivotal figure in leading his men to the continental showdown.
FIFA.com: Stuttgart finished the 2010/11 campaign in 12th spot, but spent a long stretch of the season flirting dangerously with relegation. What’s your take on the season?
Pavel Pogrebnayk: Once we were finally safe, we began thinking a little bit more about the positives. We got ourselves into trouble with a dismal first half of the season, but we turned the corner just in time and managed to avoid the drop.
Against that, it was a reasonably good season for you, as you finished high up the scoring chart at the club with eight goals.
Obviously, I’d have been happier with a couple more than that, but I was held back by injuries for a while. My fellow strikers then played very well in the last few matches of the season, so there weren’t many substitutions and I didn’t play very often.
It’ll be a battle for places again next term. How do you cope with that?
Competition within the squad can only be a good thing, and we all benefit from quality in every position. Everyone has to fight for his place in every training session.
Turning to your national team, you missed out on last year’s FIFA World Cup™, so the focus is on securing a starting place at UEFA EURO 2012. Slovakia and the Republic of Ireland are your toughest rivals for a direct qualifying spot. What’s your take on the contest so far?
We want to qualify for the European championship. The group is very evenly-matched at the moment, with three teams all on ten points. We fell to a narrow home defeat against Slovakia, but we won narrowly away to Ireland. The results just emphasise how tight it is, and it’ll probably stay that way right to the end. We’ll be looking for maximum points in the return fixtures against both these teams.
This weekend, you face surprise package Armenia for the second time. How will Russia approach the match, in the light of the goalless draw when you went there?
Armenia have played four of their matches at home, and they’ve been very strong, including the match against us. But they have some challenging away trips now, starting with us. We’re looking for all three points, although we’re well aware we’ll have to do a lot more than just show up.
You have two goals, making you Russia’s top scorer in qualifying so far. How would you define your role for the national team?
I’ve been in the squad for a number of years now, and I think I’ve delivered the goods in that time.
How would you assess Russia’s development in recent years?
It's been a mixed bag. Making the semi-finals at the EURO in Austria and Switzerland was a great success, but against that, we’ve missed out on the last two World Cups. Consistency is the vital thing now, because we need to be qualifying for the big tournaments on a regular basis.
What’s the role played by coach Dick Advocaat?
He has unbelievable experience, and his track record speaks for itself. He’ll make sure our attitude is right for the remaining qualifiers, and I’m confident we’ll book our place at the European championship.
You missed the last EURO with injury. How important is it to you personally to be part of the next tournament in Poland and Ukraine?
If you’re a regular in the national team, all your effort is geared towards the major tournaments, so I’m really determined to feature at next year’s EURO.
What would representing your country there mean to you?
Every player wears the national shirt with pride, and it means even more at the big tournaments, because there’s so much more public and media interest in the event.
How do you see the 2018 FIFA World Cup, to be hosted by Russia, influencing the game in your home country?
It's still a long way into the future, but there’ll be huge passion across the country. It's not every day you stage such a huge tournament.