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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.

Pochettino enjoying best spell of career ahead of massive clash at Man City

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Mauricio Pochettino (R) Manager of Tottenham Hotspur is seen on arrival at the stadium prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park on January 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Mauricio Pochettino is getting ready for one of his biggest matches in charge at Tottenham, but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.

The Spurs’ boss talked down the importance of Sunday’s match against Manchester City (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), and went on to say he is currently having the most enjoyable time of his career.

[ WATCH: Full PL match replays ]

Pochettino has Tottenham sitting second on the table, and they travel to the Etihad this weekend for a clash against fourth-placed Manchester City, who sit one point behind Spurs.

When asked if this weekend’s match could be a decisive result in the title race, Pochettino was unwilling to admit it was anything more than three points in a long campaign. However, when asked about the season as a whole, the Argentinian manager said he was having great fun at White Hart Lane, responding “Is it my most enjoyable time of career? Yes, maybe yes if I’m honest.”

[ MORE: Who are the Premier League title favorites? ]

Pochettino’s work at Tottenham has made him one of the most well-respected managers in the Premier League, with some reports tabbing him as the potential future boss of Manchester United.

Spurs have won six on the spin in all competitions, and will be confident facing a City side they smashed 4-1 earlier this season. With leaders Leicester facing Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham could see themselves just two points off the pace if results go their way.

Chicharito sidelined two weeks with muscle injury

ROME, ITALY - NOVEMBER 04:  Javier Hernandez of Bayer 04 Leverkusen celebrates after scoring the team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between AS Roma and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Olimpico Stadium on November 4, 2015 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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Bayer Leverkusen must move forward without their top talisman as Javier Hernandez is out with a muscle injury.

The Mexican international was forced off in the second half of Leverkusen’s midweek loss to Werder Bremen in the German Cup.

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Hernandez scored in that Werder Bremen match before getting injured, as the striker has now scored a remarkable 20 goals in his last 18 appearances for Leverkusen.

With a torn muscle fiber in his left glute, Leverkusen boss Rogers Schmidt announced Chicharito could be out for two or even three weeks.

[ RELATED: Messi wins his first La Liga Player of the Month award ]

Including this weekend’s match at Darmstadt, Hernandez will likely miss both matches against Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League as well as a huge Bundesliga clash with Borussia Dortmund.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Manchester United

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  • United 6 points outside the top four
  • Sunderland winless in four
  • MUFC has one loss in 27 vs. SAFC (W20, D6, L1)

Manchester United’s uphill battle for a top-four finish continues on Saturday when the Red Devils travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

United won this fixture in September 3-0 behind goals from Memphis, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Sunderland sit 19th on the table four points from safety as the time has come for Sam Allardyce‘s side to start getting results. Without a win in their last four matches, the Black Cats must turn things around if they want to stay up in the Premier League. Jermain Defoe scored last time out in a draw at Liverpool, and he’ll once again be tasked with finding the back of the net if Sunderland are to win.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League Picks for Week 26 ]

For Manchester United, the pressure is still on Louis Van Gaal as rumors and reports circle linking Jose Mourinho to the job. Fifth on the table and six points behind Manchester City, a top-four finish is slipping away from United if they don’t rattle off a few wins. A late goal at Chelsea last weekend cost the Red Devils all three points, but they’ll look at this matchup against Sunderland as a good opportunity to get a positive result.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce: “Providing chances for Jermain Defoe is critical for us. But our first major problem is that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in nine matches. We need to start putting a zero against us in games and if we start doing that we’ll win more matches. If we win more matches, we’ll get out of trouble.”

United manager Louis van Gaal: “We had lost four matches in a row in December and you see us now. You can only say that we are mentally very strong and that we can cope with the pressure. That is not enough as we have to improve our results and consistency to win a lot of matches in a row. We have to minimize the gap to our competitors.”

Prediction

Sunderland need all the points they can get to try and stay up, but United always seem to cause the Black Cats problems. Jermain Defoe is kept off the board as Louis van Gaal takes the win. Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United.

Costa breaks nose, will be fit to play for “Zorro team” vs. Newcastle

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Diego Costa of Chelsea reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea striker Diego Costa broke his nose in training after a clash of heads, but should be fit to play in Saturday’s match against Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Costa has six goals in his past seven Premier League games as Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 11 in all competitions.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

Manager Guus Hiddink spoke about the injury in his press conference on Friday, saying Costa collided with an Academy player in training. Hiddink said he believes Costa will be ready to play this weekend for his “Zorro team” as Costa joins Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, and Cesar Azpilicueta as Chelsea players to wear a mask this season.

It was not a tough duel but he put his nose on the back of the head of one of the youngsters from the Academy that we like to participate in our training games. He was very unlucky.

They are putting a mask on Diego as well, we are the team with a lot of masks, a Zorro team, and he will come back do some light training this afternoon as he must experience how he is dealing with the form and the fitting of the mask.

Costa scored a stoppage-time equalizer against Manchester United last weekend as Chelsea continue to get results under Guus Hiddink. The Blues are up to 13th on the table, just three points outside the top half.

[ RELATED: Frank Lampard urges Chelsea to sign John Terry ]

Chelsea will look to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches on Saturday against a Newcastle side that is just one point above the drop and in need of a result.