It is usually Russian gymnasts that we associate with parallels, but right now it is the country's manager, Fabio Capello. Feted by his adopted public for his pedigree, respected by his players for his disciplinarian ways, Capello has brought a conservative approach to the World Cup with an already unexciting side, and may be going home earlier than everyone hoped. He is getting paid a lot of money – €8.4 million a year – to do so.
Stop us if you think you've heard this one before. If his England experience is anything to go by, the Russian public should shortly be falling out of love with their Italian.
In the side's forgettable 1-1 draw with South Korea, marked by a terrible 68th-minute blunder by goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev (a "childish mistake", Akinfeev confessed), Capello spoke of the Russian equaliser as a "birthday present" – he turned 68 during the week – which was a light-hearted comment for him. On the night, to be fair, Capello did make attacking substitutions when a goal behind, and his side showed heart – but this does not amount to a hill of beans for a huge, ambitious nation investing that kind of salary.
Failure to beat the Koreans has left Russia in the treacherous position of requiring a point tomorrow against the group favourites at the Maracanã, and three more against impressive Algeria in their final match. Less than that and Russia may further their awful record of never having reached the World Cup knockout stages since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The game in Rio pitches Marc Wilmots’s cosmopolitans against a Russian side made up of entirely home-based players, and it is that latter detail that best explains the relative success of Capello’s tenure so far.
Lacking worldly experience and success, the Russian players were in perfect shape to be seduced by the Capello method. Many footballers like disciplinarian managers because of the nanny-state meaning they impose on otherwise slack lives. You get the feeling they often confuse good habits with a genuine sense of purpose.
, a survivor from the 2002 World Cup campaign, suggests ambitions may be a little higher than that. “We have things to prove in this World Cup,” he said. “It’s been 12 years since Russia have participated in the World Cup so our objective is to play more than three games.”
Russia qualified smoothly for Brazil, topping the group ahead of Portugal, displaying both the strengths and weaknesses that were on show against South Korea: solid but slow in defence, blunt in attack. Veteran defenders Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich are a reliable pairing but they do require the protection that Capello always affords his defenders with conservative tactics.
It is further up the pitch, away from the area of his own strengths, that Capello faces his biggest challenge: can he turn this into a team that scores goals? His selection of Alexander Kokorin, a 23-year-old striker who registered four times during qualifying, is promising, and the introduction of attackers Alan Dzagoev – a star at Euro 2012 – and Kerhakov was bold. But Russia badly miss the attacking influence of midfielder and captain Roman Shirokov, who is injured.
Back at Mexico 1986, Belgium and the Soviet Union played out one of the great World Cup games, a 4-3 win to the Belgians in extra-time. We thought we would never see its like again – and we don’t expect to in Rio.