After their spectacular run as the host team during the recent 2018 World Cup, which saw them reach the quarter-finals before losing dramatically to Croatia on penalties, Russia will now shift their focus on qualifying to the first-ever edition of this competition taking place in the Middle East.
Russia’s Group H commitments will kickstart with an away game against Malta at the National Stadium, in just the second meeting between these two country.
The only previous head-to-head fixture between Malta and Russia was back in 1996, with the Russian side emerging winners 2-0 in a friendly game.
Defending Russia’s goal 25 years ago was Stanislav Cherchesov who will now face Malta for the second time, this time as coach.
Cherchesov, formerly coach of Legia Warsaw with whom he travelled to Malta for a 2016 winter training camp, has been tasked with the responsibility to steer this team to another World Cup.
In parallel with these qualifications will be next summer’s Euro 2020 finals with Russia drawn in Group B alongside Denmark, Finland, and Belgium, aiming to leave a good impression on Europe’s biggest stage at international level.
While Cherchesov has kept faith with many of the experienced players who form part of this squad, he still has to deal with a number of key absences including midfield duo Roman Zobnin and Magomed Ozdoyev, Valencia’s Denis Cheryshev and Anton Miranchuk, of Lokomotiv Moscow, brother of Atalanta’s Aleksei.
Nonetheless, Cherchesov can bank on prolific forward Artem Dzyuba, of Zenit St Petersburg. The 32-year-old, captain of this Russia side, boasts 26 goals in 47 games.
At the home World Cup, the Zenit forward struck three times including in the famous victory over Spain in the last 16.
At club level, he is leading the Russian League’s scorers’ list with 13 goals as Zenit are edging closer towards another title.
Sport-Express journalist Alex Bobrov emphasised on the importance of Dzyuba with the national team.
“There are a lot of talented players, but most of them will be joining the U-21 national team for the European championships during this international break,” Bobrov told The Times of Malta.
“These include Konstantin Tiukavin, of Dinamo Moscow, and CSKA Moscow’s Fyodor Chalov.
“Nonetheless, there is always Artem Dzyuba, who is also the current Russia Premier League’s top scorer.”
Adding to Russia’s experience will be the evergreen Yuri Zhirkov. Now 37, the defender has enjoyed a distinguished career with success at Zenit and Chelsea and has recently collected his 100th cap for his national team.
“He is a valuable member of this team,” Bobrov explained.
“Zhirkov fits perfectly in this group because he is a very professional person and player, has the right experience and can lift the spirits of the team.
“Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gianluigi Buffon are still playing, so why not him?”.
In contrast, Cherchesov has also called up uncapped midfielder Maksim Mukhin, 19, who is yet to represent Russia at any category and has only made eight appearances for Lokomotiv Moscow at senior level.
Asked about the expectations of this Russia team, Bobrov explained that it won’t be easy for them to book a ticket to the upcoming World Cup.
“I understand that it will be very difficult for Russia because in order to advance directly you have to top the group,” he explained.
“Yet, we never lose hope.”