Romantsev's new order

CHAMPIONSHIP COUNTDOWN: No 11 Russia
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The Independent Online
Russia reached England with the best record of any country - 34 goals and 26 points from 10 unbeaten matches - but their chances of allowing Boris Yeltsin to exploit a feelgood factor in the mid-June election do not appear strong.

The luck of the draw, whereby Russia were placed alongside San Marino, the Faroe Islands, Finland and Greece in qualifying, deserted them when it came to the finals. To advance to the second phase they must finish above either Germany or Italy, as well as overcome a habit of frustrating expectations dating back to the days of the Soviet Union.

Even when the Soviets could blend the best of Dynamo Kiev's formidable squad with the Moscow elite, they flattered to deceive. Although they won the inaugural championship in 1960 and came second in three of the next six tournaments, only 1988 - when they lost the final to an irresistible Dutch display - hinted at a tactical flexibility to match their undoubted technique.

At Euro 92, playing as the CIS, the indignities their disunited team endured included Brian McClair's first goal for Scotland - at the 26th attempt. Then came a checkered World Cup campaign under their own name in the United States. Several players based in the West, including Andrei Kanchelskis, refused to play for a coach, Pavel Sadyrin, they regarded as out of touch with modern football.

Without the refuseniks, Russia lost to Sweden and Brazil before bowing out with a 6-1 rout of Cameroon. It is perhaps symptomatic of the way Russian football is run that the striker who hit five goals that day, Oleg Salenko, did not get near the squad for Euro 96. His face does not fit with Oleg Romantsev, the former Spartak Moscow coach who is renowned as an unyielding man once he feels he has been crossed.

Not that Romantsev is short of forwards. His selection is peppered with strikers good enough to have earned moves to Spain, Italy and Germany, though 1-1 and 0-0 stalemates with Group B runners-up Scotland suggested that they might struggle against half-decent defences. Kanchelskis, for example, was rendered peripheral in Glasgow and Moscow by the unsung Tom Boyd. Despite that, Craig Brown, the Scotland manager, tips them to win the tournament.

Romantsev revealed a ruthless streak at which Sadyrin seldom hinted by omitting Sergei Yuran and Vasili Kulkov, regulars with Spartak and Russia, from his squad for the finals. In the most surprising defection since the Cold War, the pair joined Millwall in January only to find their former mentor as unforgiving as the denizens of the New Den.

Another who left Spartak, Victor Onopko, pitched up in Spain with the coach's blessing and will anchor midfield. Yuri Nikiforov, the sweeper, will take responsibility for initiating counter-attacks. But the absence of the cohesion that stems from a shared identity - the side contains Ukrainians, Estonians et al - may militate against Russia under pressure as it did the Soviets. One win will be regarded as satisfactory.

Player to watch

Yuri Nikiforov

(Spartak Moscow)

A World Cup and Champions' League veteran at 25, the Ukrainian- born Nikiforov is a class act in the libero role, combining anticipation, sophistication and brutal long-range shooting. Had a fruitless trial four years ago at Leeds United but ready to clinch a "permanent" move from Spartak to the West with a good finals.

SQUAD

Goalkeepers

Stanislav Cherchesov Tirol Innsbruck

Dimitri Kharin Chelsea

Sergei Ovchinnikov Lokomotiv Moscow

Defenders

Yuri Nikiforov Spartak Moscow

Sergei Gorlukovich Spartak Moscow

Omar Tetradze Alania Vladikavkaz

Yuri Kovtun Dynamo Moscow

Yevgeni Bushmanov CSKA Moscow

Viktor Onopko Real Oviedo

Midfielders

Andrei Kanchelskis Everton

Igor Dobrovolski no club

Valeri Karpin Real Sociedad

Alexander Mostovoi Strasbourg

Vladislav Radimov CSKA Moscow

Dimitri Khokhlov CSKA Moscow

Ilya Tsymbalar Spartak Moscow

Igor Shalimov Udinese

Igor Yanovski Alania Vladikavkaz

Forwards

Igor Kolyvanov Foggia

Sergei Kiriakov Karlsruhe

Vladimir Beschastnykh Werder Bremen

Igor Simutenkov Reggiana

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