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.

Bobby Wood looks forward to working with Arena, praises Klinsmann

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A back injury kept Bobby Wood from United States men’s national team camp, but the Hamburg striker has been feeling good about the side’s World Cup fortunes since before the big win over Honduras.

Speaking with Hamburg’s team magazine, Wood gave a sprawling interview on his career and time with the national team. Wood praised Arena for scouting in Germany, saying the USMNT boss is a quiet coach who has his own style of playing, one that will prod the Yanks into the World Cup.

[ MORE: Complete USMNT-Panama preview ]

But the 24-year-old Hawaii-born striker saved his fondest words for ex-coach Jurgen Klinsmann, essentially calling him a career-saver. From HSV live (translated from German):

He’s very important to me. I believe if Jürgen had not been U.S. coach, then I might have stopped playing football or would have played somewhere in the fourth league.

That is why I am very, very grateful to him. At that time I was in a deep hole – it was real heavy. … He has believed in my quality. We are still in contact, he texts me.

Wood was a part-time player for 1860 Munich when Klinsmann first called him up to the national team side, and now he’s a Bundesliga striker who will be in demand if the club is relegated. Wood has also been mentioned as a target for Premier League clubs.

That’s a pretty good career jump. Klinsmann may have failed to deliver much of what he promised to the national team, but talent mining was done quite well.

USMNT-Panama preview: World Cup calm at stake

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Still wounded from the first two matches of the Hex but buoyed by its demolition of Honduras, the United States men’s national team faces an inspired Panama on Tuesday night in Panama City.

The Yanks arose from the ashes of losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to bury Honduras 6-0 Friday behind a Clint Dempsey hat trick and a goal and two assists from Christian Pulisic.

A win on Tuesday in Panama gives the U.S. something that can only soothe the nerves ahead of two summer qualifiers and the Gold Cup: Top Three status in the Hex (as is always expected).

Now the resurgent Americans face a Panama side which sits above them on the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table, having narrowed the gap on a Los Canaleros side who itself has narrowed its sights on a USMNT which burned them nearly four years ago.

[ USMNT-HONDURAS: Player ratings | Three things ]

Panama looked set to earn an interconfederation playoff berth with a 2-1 lead over the already-advanced U.S. when Graham “San” Zusi and Aron Johannsson led a shocking comeback at the Estadio Rommel Fernández to give Mexico the Hex’s fourth-place.

Los Canaleros shot out of the Hex gates with a win at Honduras and a 0-0 draw at home against Mexico, but fell 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago on Friday thanks to Minnesota United star Kevin Molino.

Now licking its wounds while eyeing revenge, Panama will hope its pair of draws with the U.S. at the 2015 Gold Cup are the start they need to pick up a first home World Cup qualifying win over the States. Panama won the third-place match over the USMNT via shootout at the that tournament.

Boss Hernán Darío Gómez is no stranger to international battles having led Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala. He deployed a 4-5-1 against T&T, and could opt for that again but has usually used either a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 with two holding mids against deeper sides than the Soca Warriors.

The former has worked better, and the personnel sometimes serves as a surprise. Last time out, in a 0-0 draw against Mexico, Gomez kept Anibal Godoy and Luis Tejada on the bench in what looks like a 4-2-2-2 at times.

[ MORE: Making sense out of the 6-0 win ]

Bruce Arena faces his own issues. In addition to the absences of Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson, the USMNT lost Sebastian Lletget and John Brooks in the win over Honduras.

Lletget’s absence is quickly remedied by either Alejandro Bedoya or, more likely, Jermaine Jones, but Brooks is a bigger problem. The Hertha Berlin man cleaned up several messes made by Omar Gonzalez, the ex-LA Galaxy man who — for better or worse — may not have shaken Arena’s confidence thanks to their long relationship.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Geoff Cameron is his best option at CB, and could serve a similar purpose to Brooks. Still, he’s not 100 percent.

Gonzalez and Matt Besler worked well together a long time ago, but Tim Ream was Arena’s first choice when Brooks hit the turf with dehydration on Friday. There’s also wild card Walker Zimmerman, who would be taking the field in his highest-profile match yet.

Arena will want to take the match to Panama, even on the road. How will it look in front of Tim Howard? This is an option for Arena, though not one we expect:

Howard

Zusi — Cameron — Ream — Villafana

Jones — Bradley — Nagbe

Pulisic

Dempsey — Altidore

Instead, Arena will probably roll the bones with Gonzalez again, and keep things close to the Honduras win. It would be silly to break up the Villafana-Nagbe partnership on the left, and the top three isn’t changing one bit.

The question is whether Arena ruffles Jones, who is both combustible and not part of the long-term future. But Jones, like all of us, would’ve seen 6-0. So, probably, this:

Howard

Cameron — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana

Bradley

Bedoya — Nagbe

Pulisic

Dempsey — Altidore

If Bradley provides the same picture-perfect cover for the back four and Pulisic continues to hum off the veteran big bodies of Dempsey and Altidore, the latter of which who is due a goal or two, the Yanks win. At worst, they’re beaten for pace by Alberto Quintero and stymied by Jaime Penedo. But the former can be covered by an in-form Howard, and the latter can only hold out for so long.

A draw puts the U.S. behind Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico ahead of two months off and the knowledge that both Mexico and Costa Rica are home for both June qualifiers.

Schweinsteiger waiting on visa, training in Mallorca

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Bastian Schweinsteiger is waiting on a visa to make his trip to Chicago official.

It’s a formality, albeit a bit trickier now given the political climate in the United States. The former Manchester United midfielder is training at Real Mallorca ahead of the move.

The transfer was announced one week ago, and Schweinsteiger is anxious to get back on the pitch. Set for a 1-year, $4.5 million deal, the midfielder has not missed any Chicago matches yet.

[ MORE: Under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Fire is 1-1-1 to start the new season under Veljko Paunovic, and has three home matches next: Montreal (Saturday), Columbus (Apr. 8), and New England (Apr. 15)

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.