Greece 0 Russia 1: Hiddink sees room for improvement in Russia

The Soviet Union was one of the giants of the European Championship, winning the inaugural competition in 1960 and finishing as runner-up in 1964, 1972 and 1988. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of Communism in the years following that last defeat, however, the Russian state that was at the heart of the USSR has struggled.

In 1992, as the main component of the Commonwealth of Independent States, they reached the eight-team European finals but did not emerge from their group. Since starting to compete as Russia, from August 1992, they have reached only four of seven major finals tournaments prior to this one and have never gone beyond the group stage.

That Ukraine reached the last eight of the 1992 World Cup and Latvia qualified for Euro 2004 only added to Russian embarrassment. It seemed that without the Ukrainians who made up the bulk of the 1988 team and the occasional exceptional footballer from elsewhere, like Alexander Hleb of Arsenal and Belarus, Russia could not punch their weight.

That may be about to change. Cash is flooding into Russian football as the oligarchs seek non-political ways to make an impact. Brazilian and Croatian internationals are playing in the Russian league. CSKA Moscow won the Uefa Cup in 2005 and Zenit St Petersburg this year. Most significantly, Roman Abramovich is underwriting the employment of Guus Hiddink as the national side's coach.

After Saturday's defeat of Greece in Salzburg, Hiddink's team are within reach of becoming the first exclusively Russian team to reach the knockout stages of a major tournament. Victory over Sweden in Innsbruck on Wednesday will secure a quarter-final against Hiddink's native Netherlands, the Soviet Union's conquerors in that 1988 final.

Russia will need to be more clinical against the Swedes. They were the better team on Saturday and could have put half a dozen past the holders, but Greece were also allowed a string of chances. The one goal either team managed was a 33rd-minute tap-in by Konstantin Zyryanov after the Greece goalkeeper, Antonis Nikopolidis, went walkabout.

Hiddink was pleased with the improvement from the 4-1 defeat by Spain, but recognised that there remains room for improvement. His focus, however, is on the long term. He is contracted until 2010 and is helping overhaul Russia's development programme.

"Russia is not a big power in world football," he said, "but Russian football is developing. It is important the national team performs well, but even if the first team is not performing well you must go on with improving the infrastructure – training centres, new stadiums.

"There must also be a renewal of the methods of training. With this huge country – 140 million people – if you organise well in scouting and youth development, then step by step it can be a powerhouse."

If the Russians are coming, the Greeks are history. Their 2004 win looks more than ever like a freak result. Otto Rehhagel, their 69-year-old coach, may now be pensioned off.

Not that he intends to go quietly. After an acrimonious exchange with Greek journalists, he said: "The Acropolis has been around for thousands of years, we won't be. That puts things in perspective."

Greece (4-3-3): Nikopolidis (Olympiakos); Seitaridis (Atletico Madrid), Dellas (AEK Athens), Kyrgiakos (Eintracht Frankfurt), Torosidis (Olympiakos); Katsouranis (Benfica), Basinas (Real Mallorca), Patsatzogou (Olympiakos); Charisteas (Nuremburg), Liberopoulos (AEK Athens), Amanatidis (Eintracht Frankfurt). Substitutes used: Karagounis (Panathinaikos) for Seitaridis, 39; Gekas (Bayer Leverkusen) for Liberopoulos, 58; Giannokopolous (unattached) for Amanatidis, 80

Russia (4-1-3-1-1): Akinfeyev (CSKA Moscow); Anyukov (Zenit St Petersburg), Kolodin (Dynamo Moscow), Ignashevich (CSKA ), Zhirkov (CSKA); Semak (Rubin Kazan); Zyryanov (Zenit St Petersburg), Semshov (Dynamo Moscow), Bilyaletdinov (Lokomotiv Moscow); Torbinski (Lokomotiv Moscow); Pavlyuchenko (Spartak Moscow). Substitutes used: Saenko (Nuremberg) for Bilyaletdinov, 69; V Berezutski (CSKA) for Anyukov, 87.

Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).

Booked: Greece Karagounis, Liberopoulos; Russia Saenko, Torbinski.

Man of the match: Torbinski.

Comments