Will Russia Leverage Weak Group Into World Cup Glory?



By John Verduzco

Host nations receive the mercy of the FIFA council, avoiding the grueling qualification process while also landing in soft groups. Initially, Russia 2018 group stage odds listed the nation as +225 underdogs to win Group A, while Uruguay were considered -150 favorites. After a stunning start to the 2018 World Cup, Russia is in the driver’s seat to emerge on top of their group due to a large cushion in goal differential. Will Russia be able to leverage a weak group into World Cup glory?

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World Cup Underdog Hosts Exceed Expectation

Since the expansion of the FIFA World Cup from 16 to 24 teams in 1982, the globalization of football increased the number of opportunities for non-superpower football nations to compete. One of the more interesting trends of the modern era revolves around underdog host nations exceeding expectation.

When Mexico hosted the 1986 World Cup, they won their group handily, before defeating Bulgaria 2-0 in the round of 16. The team would go on to battle valiantly against the Germans, bowing out during pressure-cooker penalty kicks in front of their own fans.

In 1994, the United States managed to squeeze past the group stage before narrowly losing 1-0 to Brazil, the eventual champs. The Americans rode this momentum to establish the MLS shortly afterwards, and that contributed to a quarterfinal run in 2002.

That same year, South Korea famously defeated the Italians in the round of 16 and beat Spain in the quarters by penalty kicks to make the semis, where they lost to Germany, the eventual runner-up. Japan won Group H before bowing out gracefully against the Turks.

Russia entered the 2018 World Cup as underdogs, with the football community viewing the side with apprehension. Prior to the tourney, the defense was ravaged by injury, leading to seven consecutive friendlies without a victory. Without an obvious game-breaking striker, Russia was ranked 70th of all teams at the competition, lowest of all teams.

During the second match day of competition, Russia already punched their ticket to the next phase as the highest scoring club. Already outperforming expectations by leading Group A, they’re one draw away from playing against the runner ups in Group B, further boosting their odds of a lengthy World Cup run.

How Did Russia Pull This Off?

Despite the extensive preparation which Russia invested into the 2018 FIFA World Cup, this side appeared to be the worst on paper and on the pitch. Instead, they’ve become one of the more positive stories of the tourney, appearing far more dangerous than expected. Playing on home soil has obvious benefits which help boost player performance, but that’s not the sole reason why Putin Nation lifted themselves out of the doldrums.

Perhaps the most significant change would be the injury to Alan Dzagoev at the 24-minute mark of the Saudi Arabia match. Denis Cheryshev, winger for Villareal, stepped in his place and scored a pair of goals to finish a 5-0 rout. Cheryshev then notched his third goal during the 3-1 victory over Iran.

Denis grew up in the Real Madrid academy system, turning into a top attacking prospect in the Spanish leagues. Despite not living up to lofty promise, he still managed to become a superb winger. Injuries and a lack of visibility outside of Russia prevented the national team from implementing Denis into their super-conservative, defense-heavy scheme.

A happy accident was needed to unleash Denis in front of his home crowd. Coach Stanislav made the most of his talent through significant adjustments to his own philosophy. Long relying on a five-man defense, coach Cherchesov altered his approach by playing defensive midfielder Yuri Gazinsky, utilizing him as a pressure release valve for centre backs instead of lining up five strong.

These alterations, along with a horrible opener from the Saudis, transformed Russia into the leading scorers of the tournament. In addition to Cheryshev’s breakout campaign, striker Artyom Dzyuba has netted a pair of goals. Similar to Denis, Artyom hasn’t been playing much football in Russia, instead clashing with management for Zenit St. Petersburg.

Remarkably, this turnaround was implemented weeks, not months, ahead of the World Cup.

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Russia Ready To Face The Greats

Russia clearly aced the first part of their World Cup test. The difficulty now ramps up considerably. Uruguay, one of the finest sleeper sides in the top half of the bracket, will attempt to lock in the top spot. However, the South American side might not be interested in risking Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, especially if Portugal and Spain fight for top position in Group B.

With all due respect to Portugal, Spain should represent a greater challenge because of sheer lineup depth. Sure, Cristiano Ronaldo looks unstoppable at age 33, but the Russians showed capable of dealing with one of the best strikers in the globe when defender Yuri Zhirkov limited Mo Salah of Egypt. Holding Ronaldo to a single strike like the Moroccans did would open up a plausible rout to an upset. Spain’s dealing with coaching and team cohesion issues on the fly, and that should get sorted out during the group phase.

There’s a small chance that Iran will sneak into the knockouts, but Russia will need to expect solid play against Uruguay, Spain and/or Portugal to match the South Korean’s impressive home performance of 16 years ago. If Russia shocks the world and makes the semis, they’ll need to reserve their biggest miracles for last.

Group C features the fantastic French side, which might possess the best attack in the tournament. Group D includes killers like Argentina and Croatia, along with a plucky Iceland squad which continues to churn out incredible results, most recently with a draw against Messi and company. Russia getting past France, Argentina or Croatia in the semis would be one of the greatest World Cup upsets, right up there with South Korea defeating Italy.

At the very least, Russia’s performance this year will trigger a wave of interest in the sport, leading to a rise in football talent from an athletic superpower.


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