We begin our World Cup 2018 preview articles this evening with an assessment of Russia.
The hosts could be the nation to consider when searching for Fantasy differentials ahead of the tournament. Their attacking midfield contains some real potential which might be enlivened by the occasion of competing at a home World Cup.
But Fantasy managers are advised to steer well clear of Russia’s defensive assets as the country is currently experiencing an unprecedented crisis at the back.
While the rest of the world engaged in rigorous qualification campaigns, Russia have been playing friendlies to prepare since the summer of 2016.
It proved a mixed couple of years in which they played 15 non-competitive matches against other nations, winning four meetings, drawing five and losing six.
To their credit, many of their opponents were among the world’s best and provided stern tests. Spain, Belgium and Chile were all held to draws, while Russia suffered defeats to Argentina, Brazil and France.
The only opportunity to see Russia in competitive action was at last summer’s Confederations Cup, which they also hosted. After beating New Zealand 2-0 in the opening match, they lost 1-0 to Portugal, before being eliminated in the Group Stages by a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Mexico.
Finding the net hasn’t proved too much of an issue for Stanislav Cherchesov’s men, who scored 25 goals in those 18 fixtures (1.38 per match).
In fact, when Russia drew 3-3 with Spain in November, it was the first time the former World Cup champions had shipped more than two goals in a match since being thrashed 5-1 by the Netherlands in Brazil four years ago.
The problem for Cherchesov’s men is at the back where injuries have run rife, creating the worst defensive shortfall in the nation’s history.
So it’s no surprise that they were breached three times in three of their last five friendlies (Spain, Brazil and France). Since those results it’s a 1-0 defeat in Austria and a frustrating 1-1 draw at home to Turkey for Russia.
It’s five clean sheets since August 2016, all of which were secured against teams that failed to qualify for the World Cup (Turkey, Ghana, Romania, Hungary and New Zealand). Crucially, there have been no shut-outs in 11 months.
Most starts (Friendlies + Confederations Cup): Fedor Kudryashov (16), Alexandr Samedov (15), Igor Akinfeev (14), Fedor Smolov (13), Yuri Zhirkov (11), Denis Glushakov (10).
Most goals: Fedor Smolov (6), Alexandr Samedov, Own Goals (both 4), Aleksei Miranchuk (3).
Most assists: Alexander Samedov (7), Dmitri Kombarov (3), Aleksandr Erokhin, Aleksandr Kokorin, Aleksei Miranchuk, Roman Zobnin (all 2).
The Key Targets
With injuries in defence and transition occurring in midfield, striker Fedor Smolov (£8.0m) is seen by the Russian press as one of only a few players whose starting place is guaranteed for June 14’s opening match with Saudi Arabia.
Once heavily criticised for his lack of goals, he has become the nation’s most prolific forward since starring in the Russian Premier League with FC Krasnodar.
The top-scoring player in the domestic top flight in 2016/17 with 18 strikes, Smolov followed that up by finishing second in the goal table this time around (14).
In his last five club matches the 28-year-old netted twice and laid on four assists, the perfect preparation for a home World Cup.
Smolov has 12 goals in 30 international appearances, more than anyone else in the squad, with half of those coming in the last two years – and two of them netted against Spain in November.
The Krasnodar man is priced up at £6.4m on Fantasy iTeam‘s World Cup Fantasy game which is £0.1m cheaper than Artem Dzyuba, who lost his starting place to Smolov in the last 18 months.
Winger Alexandr Samedov (£6.0m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) is the creative hub of the team with seven assists in the 18 matches since Euro 2016, also chipping in with four goals in that time.
The Spartak Moscow man, now aged 33, is also the set-piece taker and is likely to be on penalties with the absence of injured striker Aleksandr Kokorin. Only defender Fedor Kudryashov (£4.5m) has started more games for the national side in the last two years than Samedov, so his place in the line-up is all but assured for June 14.
The Long Shots
Fantasy managers searching for a differential among Russia’s ranks should look to the promising 22-year-old midfield twins Alexei and Anton Miranchuk. They are considered to be the future of the nation’s football team, with the former more established name in the side.
A central attacking midfielder, Alexei (£6.5m on McDonald’s FIFA | £5.8m on Fantasy iTeam) has started seven of Russia’s preparation matches, appearing as a substitute in another six, and has three assists and two goals during that spell. A home World Cup could be just the catalyst he needs to develop his potential.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Aleksandr Golovin (£6.5m on McDonald’s FIFA | £5.9m on Fantasy iTeam) is considered by Russian press as one of the best of the national side’s new generation.
He is a quick and technically skilled player who can operate both in midfield and in attack. Golovin hasn’t scored at international level since March 2016 but has enjoyed another great season at club level. He struck five times and put up three assists in 26 appearances for CSKA in the Russian Premier League this year, also netting twice in the Europa League.
Finally, the name Alan Dzagoev (£7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA | £6.2m on Fantasy iTeam) might ring a few bells to those who had a Fantasy squad for Euro 2012, where he scored three times for Russia and was their best player.
Due to a series of hamstring problems, the 27-year-old talented playmaker has started just four international matches over the last two years but is in the frame for selection against Saudi Arabia. As one of the few individuals in this squad with experience of success at a major tournament, he could be an outside bet for some Fantasy points this summer.
Areas to Avoid
Given Russia’s recent problems at the back, and the attacking strength of their Group A rivals, investment in their defence looks a risk.
Key centre-backs Viktor Vasin (cruciate ligament rupture) and Georgiy Dzhikiya (ACL), supposed replacements for the previously ever-present now-retired Berezutski brothers, will both miss the tournament with serious injuries.
Veteran centre-back Sergei Ignashevich (£4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA | £5.5m on Fantasy iTeam), who broke his metatarsal last year, has been forced to come out of international retirement to replace injured Ruslan Kambolov in the 28-man preliminary squad too.
Clean sheets look unlikely, particularly against Egypt and Uruguay.
Mohamed Salah was the Premier League’s 2017/18 Golden Boot winner while only Brazil (41) scored more times than Uruguay in South American qualifying (32).
Furthermore, the aforementioned absentees mean that, with the exception of stalwart goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev (£5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA | £5.6m on Fantasy iTeam) and centre-back Kudryashov, the defence is a highly unsettled area of the team with the first choice line-up difficult to predict.
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