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Friday, 09 November 2007

5024 The Psychological Barrier – Ca

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by : Dan Bailey

Russian football was in the doldrums when Gus Hiddink took charge last summer. It had failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and had made little impact two years previously in Euro 2004 where they finished bottom of Group A. The traditional, self-perpetuating pyschological failings of Russia were as strong as ever, a tough proposition at home but hopelessly insecure away on foreign land and in major competitions.

It is one of the mysteries of football why a team should play so differently away from home as they do on their own pitch. Nevertheless, to take an extreme example, Besiktas showed us just how large a role pyschology plays in modern football. Only days after overcoming Liverpool in Turkey they were on the receiving end of an eight goal humiliation at Anfield.

In Hiddink’s short time with the team though he has brought them a long way, both tactically and mentally. This is particularly noticeable away from home. In the years before Hiddink arrived, Russia had been beaten away at former Soviet outposts such as Georgia and Albania, and they took a 7-1 drubbing in Portugal in 2005. A slick 2-0 win away at Macedonia in November 2006 brought widespread acclaim in Russia and led Russian striker Roman Pavlyuchenko to declare “we've already progressed a long way, and I'm sure he can help us improve further.”

It is hard to believe that Valery Gazzaev, the manager of CSKA Moscow, insisted that a Dutchman would have no chance of “understanding the soul of the Russian people and the tradition of Russian football”. Indeed, that may have been the whole point. Russia have looked a far better team on their travels under Hiddink so far. The 3-0 defeat at Wembley was an aberration for his side, and in reality if Konstantin Zyryanov’s goal had not been unfairly disallowed when Russia were only trailing by a single goal it could well have been a different story.

That result aside, Russia are unbeaten in their other away games having won two and drawn one. Whilst it must be pointed out that the two wins came against lowly Estonia and Andorra, they did manage a creditable draw in Zagreb against Croatia and the signs of improvement are undoubtedly there. Perhaps the most impressive statistic is that so far in Group E, Russia have only conceded five goals (one less than both England and Croatia). Four of them came in the two games against England when they were bereft of their first choice goalkeeper, the highly-rated Igor Akinfeev. It may be well be crucial to note that Akinfeev will return for these two qualifying matches.

If Pavlyuchenko is to be proved right and Hiddink can improve Russia further, they will need to prove it in their two forthcoming matches. They will both be played away from the comfort of Moscow, in pressure-filled matches where the Russians have habitually crumbled. The first of those games against Israel in Tel-Aviv is by far the tougher test and where only Croatia have managed an away victory in the Qualifying group so far. The in-form Yossi Benayoun will be hoping to earn the kudos of his club captain, and a repeat of the 1-1 scoreline between these two teams in Moscow will give England a further chance of qualification at the expense of Hiddink’s men. The following match seems them travel to pointless Andorra where they must guard against complacency, but are heavily expected to win.

Russia need six points to be sure they will be in Austria and Switzerland next summer and it is a task that in the past may have overawed them. It has been a long time since they beat a team of Israel’s quality away from home, yet they have in place a solid defence, growing confidence and one of the most tactically astute managers in world football to guide them. The next two games will show us whether it truly is a mentally-tougher Russia or one still susceptible to the insecurities of old when they step onto foreign turf.

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