Advocaat's army go onwards and upwards

Russians know all about rapid ascents. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin made history by rocketing into outer space aboard Vostok 3KA, while three years ago it took Valeri Babanov and Sergey Kofanov, amid treacherous conditions, just eight days to scale the hitherto insurmountable north-west ridge of Jannu mountain.

The latest breakneck rise Russia’s inhabitants have had to savour was provided by its national football team. And while the achievement of Dick Advocaat and his troops was incomparable to those of the iconic Soviet cosmonaut or the trailblazing alpinists, a 15-place leap to tenth on October’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – the biggest move of any team that began the month in the top 50 – was undoubtedly worthy of applause.

All the more so given that they achieved the elevating results while under considerable pressure; a consequence of opening their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying campaign with an uninspiring 2-0 win in Andorra, one of the six lowest-positioned sides on the planet, and an intolerable 1-0 loss at home to Slovakia. Disenchanted sceptics felt that, by the time they’d returned from trips to the Republic of Ireland and FYR Macedonia, they’d have a mountain to climb just to finish second in Group B and secure a play-off place.

Fifty minutes in Dublin on 8 October extinguished that suspicion. Zenit striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov, returning to the side following a two-match suspension for his sending off in Russia’s FIFA World Cup™ qualifying play-off defeat by Slovenia, broke the deadlock with his ninth goal in five games for club and country, before producing a cute dummy that enabled 20-year-old Alan Dzagoev to double the visitors’ lead. That cushion was extended five minutes after the restart courtesy of Roman Shirokov's deflected strike, and although the Irish scored twice in the last 20 minutes, their guests left the Aviva Arena with a 3-2 win.

“It was perhaps the best performance in the modern history of the Russian national team,” reflected captain Andrey Arshavin. “We did not allow our opponents to do anything, controlling every single inch of the pitch.”

Russia’s ensuing display was not one that prompted glowing superlatives, but it was one good enough to earn victory over Macedonia. Kerzhakov struck the only goal early on in Skopje, while a superb second-half penalty save from Igor Akinfeev was also paramount to a success that propelled them top of the pool, two points clear of Ireland, Armenia and Slovakia.

We have to qualify, that's our first goal. If we do, we will try to do well. If you go to a tournament, you go to win it. That must always be your aim.
Dick Advocaat on UEFA EURO 2012

Russia are still a long way from scaling the heights reached during their footballing zenith, a period that began with Olympic gold in 1956. Thereafter, they won the inaugural UEFA European Championship in 1960, finished runners-up in two of the tournament’s next three editions, and reached the FIFA World up™ semi-finals in 1966. Had the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking existed during that decade and a half – one in which Lev Yashin, Albert Shesternyov, Igor Netto, Valentin Ivanov, Eduard Streltsov and Igor Chislenko excelled in the red jersey – Soviet Union would have existed comfortably in its top ten.

That is a coveted bracket Russia have been largely outside since the global ladder’s inception in December 1992. Indeed, despite peaking at third for three months from April 1996 – a position indebted to 15 wins and one draw from their 16 matches previous to that year’s European finals – they spent almost 11 years looking upwards at the top ten before a third-placed finish at EURO 2008 aided their return. Russia then spent 12 months between ninth and sixth before losing their elite status in October 2009. And only last month, they fell to 25th – their lowest position in three years.

Having fulfilled mission regain, it’s now time to concentrate on mission remain, with Advocaat’s side set to host Belgium in a friendly next month and Armenia in EURO 2012 qualifying in March. And player power has decorated the Russian shuttle in an encouraging shade. Akinfeev, who was just 20 days past his 18th birthday when he made his international debut, is, at 24, finally beginning to receive the plaudits his goalkeeping has long merited; Yuri Zhirkov, following an action-starved first season at Stamford Bridge, has begun to make his mark for Chelsea, and thumped home a brilliant goal in a 2-0 win at Spartak Moscow in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday; Dzagoev’s playmaking for CSKA Moscow has put Manchester United and Real Madrid on alert; Arshavin continues to thrill for Arsenal; Kerzhakov is in his prolific pomp; and Pavel Pogrebnyak has hit seven goals in nine starts for Stuttgart and Russia this season.

With such talent at his disposal, Advocaat, who assumed the Russian reins in July, knows reaching EURO 2012 is a demand rather than a desire. "It's quite simple – we have to qualify, that's our first goal," he said. “If we do qualify, we will try to do well. I think if you go to a tournament, you go to win it. That must always be your aim.”