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Russia has to overcome key injuries when opening against Group D favorite Spain

Russia has to overcome key injuries when opening against Group D favorite Spain

Hit by injuries to key players, Russia will likely flood the midfield to hold off the potent attack of Group D favorite Spain or risk seeing its European Championship campaign derailed from the start.
Russia coach Guus Hiddink has never failed to lead his team out of the group phase at the World Cup _ the Netherlands in 1998, South Korea in 2002 and Australia two years ago in Germany. At his only previous European Championship, in 1996, he led the Netherlands to the quarterfinals, where they lost to France on penalties.
The Dutchman will have to extend his streak without his two key playmakers _ the injured Pavel Pogrebnyak and the suspended Andrei Arshavin.
Without their goal-getting skills, Russia will likely play to shut down Spanish creativity.
"We know that Spain is famous for its improvisation and we have to be playing in a compact group, not creating too much space," said Sergei Semak, who is expected to be Russia's captain.
Pogrebnyak, who scored 10 goals in Zenit St. Petersburg's run to the UEFA Cup title, was ruled out of Tuesday's match at the Tivoli Neu stadium in Innsbruck with a left knee injury. Arshavin will also miss the next match against Greece due to suspension.
"They are two players who can make the difference if a game is hanging in the balance, they've proved that at European level. It's like losing blood, a lot of blood," Hiddink said. "I could keep complaining about it and using it as an excuse, but no, the players are the ones who have to solve the problem _ show that everybody is replaceable."
Pogrebnyak's absence means Roman Pavlyuchanko, who came off the bench to score twice as Russia rallied to beat England in qualifying, should return to the lineup.
"He is a very good guy, a very good character, but sometimes you have to tickle them a little bit to do a little bit more and make some effort to be competitive," Hiddink said about recent criticism over the player's form and fitness.
Semak, who is returning from a two-year hiatus, is back will likely be captain after playing a key role in FC Rubin Kazan's surprise run to the top of the Russian league this season.
"Of course Spain is favorite not only in our group but in the whole championship," Semak said. "But we can play good football too and if we play at our best we can win."
"La Furia Roja" (The Red Fury) hasn't lifted a major championship trophy since it beat the Soviet Union in the Euro 1964 final at home. Living up to the expectations has always been a problem for Spain, which knows it must not underestimate a depleted Russia squad _ especially one led by Hiddink.
"Obviously he knows Spanish football," goalkeeper Iker Casillas said. "But now we are in a different era then when he trained at Real Madrid and Valencia. We do have a certain respect for teams trained by Hiddink _ they put up a good fight whether they play well or badly."
Hiddink's South Korea squad trumped Spain on penalties at the 2002 World Cup.
"As we've seen, they are a very gritty team," said midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who played in that quarterfinal match. "At the European level we don't know their players so well, but it's gritty football, very fast and technical."
Led by Fernando Torres and David Villa _ who combined for 56 goals this season _ there is little reason Spain should emerge without a victory.
The two strikers are fronted by a standout midfield that has seen Cesc Fabregas relegated to the bench. Quick touch passing and possession grown out of the middle four is the key to Spain's attack with Xavi the key.
"He is practically the one player that will determine the order of our game," Aragones said. "I would say he is one of the best three or four players in the world in that position."
Spain comes into the match on a six-game winning streak, which is part of a 16-match unbeaten run stretching to November 2006. But statistics have provided little comfort recently.
Spain went into the World Cup on a 21-match unbeaten run but lost to France in the second round. It beat Russia 1-0 to open the group phase at Euro 2004 but drew 1-1 against eventual champion Greece and lost to Portugal.
Aragones said Spain will never match Italy's talent at the back, but he's happy with the overall improvements seen in training since two shaky warm-up wins where the team squeaked through against lesser opponents.
Creating _ and maintaining _ the momentum will be important.
"There's no fear whatsoever. This is not a war, if it was a war I would be afraid but it's a football match," Aragones said. "I have trust in the players and I think everything will go well."
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Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Innsbruck, Austria, contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-01-27 09:18 GMT+08:00