European Championship in focus: Spotlighting Russia

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Privyet (привет), and welcome to glorious picture of Russian soccer future. Were this 2004, we would say in Soviet Russia, preview predicts you, but since internet meme died quicker than Russian democratic party, we say post is picture of motherland’s future greatness. Poka!

Man that matters:

Igor Afkineev: Two years ago, the CSKA Moscow goalkeeper transcended “nerd favorite” to “recognizable name” thanks to his Champions League performances against Manchester United. Since, he’s spurned approaches from Europe’s big boys, tore up his knee in a Moscow derby against Spartak, and returned in time to bolster a Russian defense that will be missing one of its key contributors (Vasili Berezutskiy out with a thigh injury).

For an elite goalkeeper, Akinfeev is on the smallish side (6’1″), and while he can competently command his area, he’s not going to dominate balls in the air. But what he lacks in physicality Akinfeev makes up for in reflexes and recognition.

He’s a younger, less appreciated Iker Casillas, part of the reason he’s now being linked with Chelsea.

First-round games:

June 8: vs. Czech Republic (Warsaw, Poland)
June 12: vs. Poland (Warsaw, Poland)
June 16: vs. Greece (Warsaw, Poland)

Foursome of knowledge:

  • After ousting the Netherlands in the 2008 championships, Russia served a brief period as Europe’s darlings, with Andrei Arshavin becoming the tournament’s breakout star. Russia would make the semifinals, their best finish since the Soviet Union broke up (the USSR did won inaugural tournament in 1960).
  • The last go around, Russia was led by head coach Guus Hiddink. Hiddink, as he’s genetically predisposed to do, moved on (after failing to qualify Russia for the 2010 World Cup), and as is ordained in every contract Hiddink signs, he must be succeeded by Dick Advocaat. But rather than lull in his trailblazer’s wake, Advocaat has restored some of Russia’s bite. Another semifinal appearances is possible, though they’ll need to spring one upset to make it that far.
  • Even in the absence of Berezutskiy, Russia is in the enviable position of having a back four highly acquainted with each other. (From right to left) Alexsandr Anyukov, Sergei Ignashevich, Alexsei Berezutskiy (Vasili’s twin brother), and Yuri Zhirkov are all between 28 and 32 and have each accumulated between 46 and 73 caps. All except Anyukov have had long spells at CSKA, something which helps Akinfeev’s organization.
  • But just like 2008, Russia’s status as upstarts may depend on Andrei Arshavin. While most people have come to know him as the guy who seems a ill-fit for Arsenal’s left wing, Arshavin has resumed his centrally deployed, playmaking self thanks to a loan stint with Zenit St. Petersburg. In 11 games with the Russian champions, Arshavin scored three and set up four, filling in after Zenit’s best player (Portuguese playmaker Danny) tore up his knee. Perhaps Arshavin won’t be as good as he was in 2008, but he’ll be ready.

Where they are going:

Russia should win Group A, but it won’t be easy. All of the Czech Republic, Greece and Poland have capable sides, and given some of the disappointments Russia has had in recent history (losing their two-legged playoff with Slovenia for a spot at the 2010 World Cup), the team’s shown themselves capable of shrinking from the occasion. In Poland, memories of Slovenia will serve the team well, pushing them to a strong group performance.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Anton Shunin (Dynamo Moscow), Vyacheslav Malafeev (Zenit St. Petersburg)

Defenders: Aleksandr Anyukov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Aleksei Berezutskiy (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Yuri Zhirkov (CSKA Moscow), Roman Sharonov (Rubin Kazan), Vladimir Granat (Dynamo Moscow), Dmitri Kombarov (Spartak Moscow), Kirlll Nabakin (CSKA Moscow)

Midfielders: Roman Shirokov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Igor Denisov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Konstantin Zyryanov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Marat Izamailov (Sporting CP), Igor Shemshov (Dynamo Moscow), Denis Glushakov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow)

Forwards: Pavel Pogrebnyak (Fulham), Andrei Arshavin (Arsenal), Aleksandr Kokorin (Dynamo Moscow), Roman Pavlyuchenko (Lokomotiv Moscow), Aleksandr Kerzhakov (Zenit St. Petersburg)

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images
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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.

PHOTO: Liverpool unveils 125th anniversary kit for next season

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Liverpool rolled out its 125th anniversary kit, featuring a special crest to celebrate the occasion.

The Liver bird has 1892 on one side and 2017 on the other, with “125 YEARS” spelled out underneath the club’s emblem.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

The red shirt with a gold crest has a white V-neck and white at the ends of the sleeves. The goalkeeper kit is green.

The jersey will be available on May 19, and was announced last month.

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Jara’s goal lifts Pachuca to CONCACAF Champions League crown

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Hirving Lozano’s dipping shot rebounded into the path of Franco Jara, who scored the goal that won Pachuca its fifth CONCACAF Championship early Thursday morning.

The Argentine’s goal was the only one of the win over UANL Tigres, and gave Pachuca its first continental title since 2009-10. USMNT veteran Omar Gonzalez played for the winners, while Jose Torres started for Tigres.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Major League Soccer teams were eliminated in the semifinals, with FC Dallas falling to Pachuca and Vancouver Whitecaps losing to Tigres.

Beginning with the 2017-18 tournament, qualified MLS and Liga MX teams will not enter the tournament until the Round of 16. The entire tournament will be held in the same calendar year.

USMNT: Brooks out with hip strain; World Cup qualifiers loom

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John Brooks is out of Hertha Berlin’s lineup “for the time being” after scans revealed a hip strain suffered in this weekend’s win over Wolfsburg.

That’s all Hertha has said, and that makes it hard to imagine whether American fans should be a little concerned or very concerned ahead of the USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago in early June.

Brooks was unavailable for two weeks with an adductor strain in September, missing a month before returning to the starting lineup.

The U.S. center back pool isn’t teeming after Brooks and Geoff Cameron. Matt Besler, Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, and Walker Zimmerman were called up for the last World Cup qualifiers, and Gonzalez struggled but is a Bruce Arena favorite from their time in L.A.