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- Aug 1, 2010
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Italian's authoritarian approach has brought his side to the brink of World Cup qualification before Friday's crucial tie in Lisbon
Managers react to leaving the England job in a number of ways. Glenn Hoddle resumed a club career. Kevin Keegan seemed to give up on football management altogether. Sven-Goran Eriksson became a preposterous playboy, linked with such increasingly outré schemes that it always comes as something of a start to remember he once made IFK Gothenburg one of the leading forces in Europe. Steve McClaren took himself off inter-railing round medium-sized clubs in the Netherlands and Germany. And Fabio Capello set his not inconsiderable jaw at the world, put a not inconsiderate pay cheque in his pocket and set about making Russia at last live up to its potential.
The qualifying campaign could hardly have begun better. Russia, without ever playing football that anybody would describe as thrilling, have won their first four matches, including – vitally – a 1-0 home win over Portugal.
Portugal, meanwhile, are going through their usual qualifying travails. As well as that defeat in Moscow they have drawn at home to Northern Ireland and only just salvaged a 3-3 draw away to Israel having been 3-1 down with 20 minutes to go. As a result they trail Russia by a point, having played two games more, and are only third in the table, behind Israel, who have also played six matches, on goal difference.
Given two of Russia's six remaining games are against Luxembourg, Portugal must beat Capello's side in Lisbon on Friday if they are to have any chance of overhauling them and avoiding the play-offs. And if Portugal were to lose, there is a serious possibility of not even finishing second in the group; much would come down to the home game against Israel in October.
This is not, it should be said, an unfamiliar position for Portugal. They have made a habit of qualifying for major tournaments through the play-offs, beating Bosnia to reach both the last World Cup and Euro 2012, and it may be that seeding secures them an easy tie. Yet you do wonder how they keep getting in this position with a midfield that contains not only Cristiano Ronaldo but also João Moutinho and Nani.
Capello, as he always does, has adapted his tactics to the prevailing culture. He has a chameleon quality that has allowed him to adapt to pretty much every team he has taken over (England possibly excepted, although even then he qualified well for the World Cup, secured a place in Euro 2012 and beat Spain and Sweden in his final two games), something that perhaps leads to him being underrated as a coach: he is a pragmatist not a visionary and as a result it is almost impossible to describe what his philosophy is.
Russia have played a 4-3-3 since Guus Hiddink's time in charge and Capello has not changed that. The shape remains the same, with Igor Denisov – who when he is focused and not in a strop is one of the best holding players in Europe – anchoring the midfield behind his Zenit St Petersburg team-mates Roman Shirokov and Viktor Fayzulin and a mobile front three permed from Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Vladimir Bystrov, Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Samedov and Aleksandr Kokorin (though he will miss the Portugal game through injury).
"A lifestyle depends on the customs in a given country," Capello said in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "In Spain, for example, it is considered normal to go to bed at two in the morning and have dinner at 10pm. Italians are a little different. They prefer to go to night clubs and spend the whole night there after a game. The English like to gather the whole team together and have a drink or two. That's their way of life. Respect for the rules is key. When you prepare for a game, you should give all you've got during training sessions and seek constantly to improve yourself. That's why, when a national team spends a couple of days together, its regimen consists of working, sleeping and eating – and team-building."
It may be Russia's players appreciate his authoritarian approach rather more than England's did. Capello, though, has not simply replicated the work of Hiddink and **** Advocaat. He has changed the emphasis and it is no coincidence that Russia are yet to concede in this qualifying series. "We have become more strict and disciplined at the back," said Shirokov. "All the players work hard and so results have come." As the Sovetsky Sport columnist Yury Tsyban put it, if Hiddink's side produced champagne football, Capello's style is more of whisky: there may not be much in the way of fizz but there is a peaty robustness to it.
Under Hiddink the key players were the forward Andrey Arshavin and the attacking full-backs Yuri Zhirkov and Alexander Anyukov. Of them only Anyukov seems a first-choice under Capello. Arshavin has been stripped of the captaincy, a decision he seemed actively to support, while Dmitri Kombarov has come in at left-back. The strength of this side is rooted on the solidity provided by Denisov and the central defensive duo of Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski, who had so often in the past seemed a weakness.
The battle on the right between Anyukov and Ronaldo should be fascinating, although Russia are likely to sit back and look to hit Portugal on the break. After all, another clean sheet and they are all but in Brazil.
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