ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - If everything had gone to plan, several of the players who have guided Russia to the brink of qualification for the World Cup knockout stages might have been left at home to watch the tournament on television.
The hosts defied expectations by winning their opening matches emphatically, trouncing Saudi Arabia 5-0 before beating Egypt 3-1 on Wednesday to top Group A.
If the Saudis fail to beat Uruguay later on Thursday, Russia will reach the knockout rounds for the first time since the break up of the Soviet Union, having failed to progress in all three of their World Cup appearances since 1994.
It is a remarkable feat considering the spate of injuries that disrupted preparations, the low expectations of fans and the hostility from sections of the media in the run-up to the tournament.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov, who took over in 2016, was widely criticized after his team’s early exit from last year’s Confederations Cup, and speculation mounted that he would be sacked.
Yet the 54-year-old has proved to be as adaptable as he is tactically astute and coaxed 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich out of international retirement to replace injured Rubin Kazan center back Ruslan Kambolov.
Ignashevich has started both of Russia’s games and his experience has been invaluable, with the hosts unruffled by Saudi Arabia and managing to keep Egypt’s prolific striker Mohamed Salah quiet for long periods.
“We don’t have the word ‘problem’ in our vocabulary,” Cherchesov said after his side beat Egypt. “We have had some issues and we deal with them as soon as they emerge.”
It is at the other end of the pitch, however, that Russia are springing the biggest surprises.
The team was expected to struggle after losing striker Aleksandr Kokorin to injury, but Cherchesov’s decision to bring towering center forward Artem Dzyuba back in from the cold has proved a masterstroke.
Sent home from training before the Confederations Cup amid rumors of a row with the coach, Dzyuba spent a year out of the national team.
He was loaned out by Zenit St Petersburg to mid-table Arsenal Tula, where he scored six goals in 10 appearances to force himself back into the reckoning for the World Cup.
Making his first appearance as a second-half substitute, Dzyuba scored a minute after coming on against the Saudis and started against Egypt, where he harried Ahmed Fathi into scoring an own goal for the opener before adding Russia’s third himself.
His ability to hold up the ball has benefited Russia’s creative midfielders, with Denis Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin both feeding off him.
Cheryshev also started the first game on the bench, coming on in the first half after Alan Dzagoev was injured, and immediately made his mark with two goals. He started against Egypt and turned in another precise finish for Russia’s second.
With the fans now firmly behind them, Russia are hoping Uruguay can hold off Saudi Arabia to confirm the host nation’s progress to the next stage of the World Cup.
Dzyuba said Russia had been fortunate to play their opponents in the right order. “Saudi is a very good team, Egypt much better, and Uruguay even better,” he said.
It is not just luck, however, but inspired selections, sound tactics and rising confidence that has the Russians dreaming of a place in the last 16.
Reporting by Simon Jennings in St Petersburg; Editing by Tony Lawrence