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Russia Shows Weak Defense Ahead of Cup

May 2, 2002

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MOSCOW (AP) _ If soccer can be seen as a stylized battle, the Russian national team looks like a version of the Russian army: often underestimating smaller opponents, troubled by low morale, and longing for offensive brilliance but ultimately relying on defense.

Russia earned its first World Cup berth since 1994 in a series of qualifiers that seemed to recapitulate the country’s military history, struggling against teams from countries so small that their entire populations would barely fill a Moscow neighborhood.

Slovenia beat Russia 2-0 in one match and held it to a 1-1 draw in the other. Russia barely managed to knock off the team from the tiny Faeroe Islands, squeezing out slim 1-0 and 3-0 victories.

In all, Russia managed 18 goals in the qualifiers, one of the smaller totals of the UEFA teams that are headed for Japan and South Korea _ and relied on a single player, striker Vladimir Beschastnykh, for nearly half of those.

Where Russia shone during those games was with a defense that allowed five goals in 10 games.

But after a pair of startling and demoralizing losses in friendly matches earlier this season, even Russia’s strong suit looks less than reliable.

The Russians’ 2-0 loss to Ireland raised doubts about their ability to put on a coordinated performance, although Ireland is generally regarded as a decent World Cup side.

Then the other shoe dropped on a cold night in Tallinn, when the negligible Estonian team dropped Russia 2-1. The result appalled Russians.

``This is how we’re going to Japan?″ snorted the newspaper Sport-Express.

The match showed serious coordination problems among the players, and even some tensions with Beschastnykh and Valery Karpin arguing heatedly at halftime.

``Playing this kind of game, I don’t think we could win a single match at the World Cup,″ assistant Russian coach Mihail Gershkovich said.

The poor performance raised doubts about the final composition of the team, most notably about whether goalie Ruslan Nigmatullin would be part of the starting lineup.

Nigmatullin’s ball-blocking was a key to Russia’s success in the qualifiers, but his play since then has been haphazard at best and he hasn’t made the starting lineup of his current team Verona. He moved there from Moscow’s Lokomotiv this year.

``The definite slump at the beginning of the season for Nigmatullin was unavoidable. It’s connected to the fact that last year Ruslan performed very successfully, and the crazy attention raining down on him could not take place without consequences,″ Romatsev said.

``That he does not have a place on the first squad of his team leaves an imprint on his psychological condition. I don’t think Ruslan lost anything in quality as a goalkeeper, but psychologically he does not feel as confident as he did previously. It’s alarming,″ Romatsev said.

If Russia wants to replace him, it doesn’t have much to choose from. Among other notable Russian goalies, Sergei Ovchinnikov reportedly declined to play for the national team _ although Ovchinnikov says his intentions were misinterpreted. Alexander Filimonov was benched in a recent Russian premier league game.

Amid the problems, there are some bright spots, including the increasingly assured performances of young players, including striker Marat Ismailov of Israel’s Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Dmitry Sychev.

Their potential may be significantly bolstered by a tournament against Ukraine, Belarus and Yugoslavia just days before departing for Japan.

Russia faces Japan, Belgium and Tunisia in the first round and initially had been seen as challenged only by the Belgians to advance. But Romantsev cautions against underestimating Japan.

``Practically all the teams which plan to take part in the World Cup are at the stage of testing now. With the help of friendly games they are searching for new ideas, they are experimenting a lot. The Japanese team was freed from the qualifying cycle and therefore had more possibilities to experiment,″ he said.

``In my view, this team can aspire to the highest spot and not only because it is a host of the tournament: in Japan they’ve learned to play quite decently,″ he said.

Romantsev also said he believes history shows the Russians will rise to the occasion, and cited the folk saying ``appetite increases at the time of eating.″

``In their time, the USSR teams were called the world champions in friendly matches. Today the situation is the opposite. We just can’t successfully perform in friendly games, but in official matches we lose almost nothing,″ he said.

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