By Ger Clancy , the Irishman
One of football’s most endearing and at the same time frustrating qualities is its ability to propel the weak to the summit, send the great into ignominy and deny an expected victor its spoils at the death. The Russian national team tasted the latter on Saturday night in Tel-Aviv and, in keeping with recent disasters, were entirely responsible themselves for their misfortune. But fate alone didn’t create the events at Ramat-Gan. Not only did Russia play badly; they played terribly. Their performance was what one might have expected from Israel. But already having been eliminated from Euro 2008 in all but name, Israel played like a team on the cusp of dumping football’s old money out of the competition and earning a famous qualification themselves.
Tales of teams with nothing to lose collecting major scalps are nothing new in football. Israel has caused France, Switzerland, Croatia and Ireland serious problems in recent years both home and away. But Russia could have and should have known better. Their performance was weak, lifeless, tactically inept and worse of all they were beaten by two of the most basic attacking moves that teams at the most amateur of levels employ. Their passing was awful, their movement off the ball was non-existent and both center-backs looked on in admiration as Israel scored twice. This catastrophe was right up there with Filimonov’s 1999 disaster at Luzhniki against Ukraine or the twin capitulations in the space of a week in 2002 at Yokohama and Ibaraki. If Russian fans were angry, and I’m sure they were, they had every right to be. But fate had another twist in store for the Russians…
Four days later, England was proving they were just as capable as Russia at hari-kiri. At a rain-sodden Wembley, hopes were high and fans’ voices raised the roof in anticipation of a relatively easy ride and a football escape of astounding proportions which had seemed impossible before Russia went to Tel-Aviv. Croatia, however, were having none of it. In spite of early England pressure the visitors took the lead after eight minutes when Krancjar’s long-range shot slid underneath replacement goalkeeper Carson, and added a second when Olic rounded a static England defense six minutes later. The first half petered out miserably and suddenly Russia’s qualification looked alive again. To their enormous credit England stormed into the second half and were handed a lifeline after 56 minutes when Dafoe was pulled down in the box resulting in a penalty which Lampard converted. Crouch then equalized after a terrific cross from Beckham, and suddenly Russia were back in the hangman’s noose. England couldn’t hold on though. With 13 minutes left Petric steered a left-foot rocket across Carson into the corner to put Croatia back in front. On BBC TV one of the commentators, John Motson, remarked ironically “first we were depending on Israel for miracles, now we’re depending on Andorra. It says it all really.”
The miracle did not come. Russia won 1-0 in the Pyrenees, and in spite of their best efforts at self-destruction, qualified for Euro 2008.
Group E, like so many of the other Euro qualifying groups, has been astounding in its mediocrity. With the exception of Croatia, no team has even passed themselves off as being average, let alone near the standard needed to win the tournament next June. England blew it twice, in Moscow and last night at Wembley, and failed to take even a single point from the Croats. Russia tried their best to throw it away at Ramat-Gan, but England did it for them. It’s fair to say that neither team deserved to qualify, but Russia messed up less often than the English. Russia twice held Croatia scoreless and this more than anything saw them through. People will point at the drama of the group matches, but the nature of the games screamed ‘rubbish’. For Hiddink, there will be no plaudits from knowledgeable fans – its back to the drawing board for the Dutchman and a long winter of planning and plotting an escape from the first round of the finals next summer. This in and of itself will be a major achievement. Russia’s biggest problem—inconsistency—has scourged them since 1994 and has still not been addressed. The lack of team spirit and drive has been plainly evident in the last two games. With Australia and Korea, Hiddink had reasonably skilled but genuinely willing players who at the very least gave their all and totally bought into his philosophy. As evidenced in this qualifying campaign, he may have found neither of these traits in the Sbornaya, and, much like Sadyrin, Romantsev and Yartsev, he may not find them in the future either.
Still, Russia wins the first round of the New Cold War. Just about. And it sure wasn’t pretty.