Slick Russia bounce Czechs with some ease
GROUP A RUSSIA 4 CZECH REPUBLIC 1:RUSSIA HAVE radiated a quiet confidence in their preparations for this tournament, giving a sense of a well-grooved and encouragingly weathered unit that was justified yesterday by a periodically irresistible 4-1 swatting aside of a disappointing Czech Republic team.
This was a victory founded in the twinkling movement of Russia’s fluid front three and a midfield that keeps the ball with encouraging ease.
It was the Czechs who settled the quicker in the early moments. Cohesion in midfield is Russia’s strength, with a central three culled entirely from Zenit St Petersburg in the shape of Igor Denisov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov. Here, though, it was the Czechs’ own energetic twin-fulcrum of Plasil and Petr Jiracek who rested control in the early stages, with Milan Baros constantly moving across a rather stiff-legged Russian backline.
It proved a false dawn for the Czechs. Michel Bilek’s team lack penetration and here it was once again a case of the unbearable lightweightness of the Czech Republic attack as Russia emerged to carve out the first real chance after 13 minutes.
Andriy Arshavin’s delightful flick to Yuri Zhirkov put the former Chelsea man in on the left wing, only for his cross to be scuffed wide by Aleksandr Kerzhakov. Another decisive thrust brought the opening goal a minute later. Shirokov burst through on the right and crossed for Kerzhakov, unmarked in the middle. His header back across goal struck the post with Petr Cech beaten, but the ball rebounded to Alan Dzagoev, tipped by many as an emerging star. His finish was precise from the edge of the area.
Suddenly it was all Russia. With 20 minutes gone Dzagoev might have had another: played in by a cross-field pass from Kerzhakov he blazed wide of the near post. The Czechs were finding Russia’s false nine drifting into positions unmanned by white shirts, vindicating Dick Advocaat’s decision to side with Kerzhakov’s subtlety.
Not that there was anything deliberate about Kerzhakov’s part in Russia’s second goal after 24 minutes. Arshavin slid a pass diagonally into the Czech area, where Kerzhakov was lurking in space. He failed to reach the ball, which ran on to the unmarked Shirokov, who finished from six yards out.
Arshavin was a roving danger across the front line, popping up on the right to curl an alluring cross along the six-yard box and confirming that Russia’s captain has entered this tournament rejuvenated. Unable to track Russia’s mobile front three the Czechs looked wide open at the back and on 33 minutes Russia might have killed the game, Kerzhakov clipping the bar. At half-time the Czech’s trooped off looking a little bewildered.
Bilek’s reshuffled team pulled a goal back seven minutes after the restart, Plasil’s perfect through-pass allowing Vaclav Pilar to round Vyacheslav Malafeev and score. Steadily Russia’s midfield triumvirate reasserted itself and Kerzhakov shot wide on 64 minutes when he should have scored.
Kerzhakov was replaced by Roman Pavlyuchenko on 73 minutes, and he sealed the game within nine minutes of his arrival. First Pavlyuchenko created Russia’s third goal with a neatly cushioned pass into the path of Dzagoev, who lashed the ball home.
Then moments later Advocaat’s well-timed substitute ambled inside Roman Hubnik with galling ease, before finishing high and powerfully beyond Cech.
By the end Russia were strolling. If weariness can be staved off after a gruelling season they will take some stopping on this evidence.