Russia are the only team at this World Cup with a squad based entirely of domestic-squad players, but in Italian coach Fabio Capello they hope to have an X factor to lead them out of the group stage for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
One of the most successful coaches of his generation, Capello has won multiple league titles in Italy and Spain in addition to lifting the Champions League with Milan. His impact upon taking over Russia after the team’s disappointing failure to progress from the group phase at Euro 2012 was immediate. Russia topped their group in qualifying, conceding just five goals in 10 games with a team based around Capello’s priority of defensive organization. A 1-0 win over Portugal in Moscow proved to be the decisive result. And the 67-year-old has something to prove in Brazil. His one major disappointment as a manager came in his only previous foray into the international arena, when his England side disappointed at the last World Cup and crashed out of courtesy of a 4-1 defeat to Germany.
“It's true, the biggest star is the coach,” Russia defender Vasily Berezutskiy said, according to FIFA.com. “He's a very respected coach, he's won in Spain, in Italy, he's won the Champions League, we don't have any players in the squad with such a respected reputation.”
Berezutskiy and Sergey Ignashevich will make up an experienced duo at the heart of Russia’s defense. And Berezutskiy has been handed an unexpected extra responsibility on the eve of the World Cup, after Capello gave the captain’s armband to the CSKA Moscow man following an injury to Roman Shirokov. While he has been replaced as captain, Shirokov’s absence still leaves a large hole in the team. With a side built around solidity that lacks decisive players in attacking areas, Shirokov was crucial getting forward from his midfield role. The 32-year-old scored three goals in qualifying and there is no obvious replacement in the squad.
Even greater responsibility to get the goals will now fall on striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The 31-year-old is an intelligent, hard-working forward, but has not been prolific at international level, with 25 goals in 81 appearances. He is, though, the only member of the Russia squad with any World Cup finals experience.
Kerzhakov came on as a substitute in Russia’s defeat to Belgium in 2002, which preceded a 12-year wait to get back to biggest stage. In contrast, Russia’s opponents in their opening game of Group H, South Korea, will be playing in their eighth successive World Cup. Twice in their last three visits, they have also progressed from the group stage to continue the country’s growth on the international stage.
Hong Myung-Bo has played a big part in that development. After playing with distinction at four World Cups, culminating in captaining the team to the semifinals on home soil in 2002, he assisted coach Dick Advocaat in 2006. Leading the largely Under-23 side to Olympic bronze in London two years ago signaled him out as coach of real promise and he was duly handed control of the senior side last year after their struggles to qualify for Brazil.
Hong has selected one of tournaments youngest squads for the World Cup and is set on a building an attractive playing style -- philosophies epitomized by Son Heung-Min. The 21-year-old, who has just completed his first season with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, is technically gifted and the side’s main attacking threat.
Despite optimism for the future, preparation for the world Cup has been far from ideal, however. After a 1-0 loss to Tunisia, Korea’s final warm up game saw them soundly beaten, 4-0, by Ghana. It was a match that exposed the team’s chief failings. While Korea largely controlled possession, they were sorely lacking in both penalty areas. Missing a decisive presence up front and with a collection of raw defenders, this may prove to be a tournament too early for Hong’s side. And, while Russia are far from convincing, their greater experience on the pitch, and in the dugout, could see them edge an opening win.
Prediction: Russia 1-0 South Korea
Betting Odds (Bovada.lv)
Russia win: 5/7
South Korea win: 15/4
When and where: The World Cup Group H match will kick off from Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba at 6 p.m. ET.