Despite they surprisingly reached FIFA World Cup round-of-8, Russia is still considered an over-performing team and arguably the weaker side in the sweet eight. The Sbornaya are clearly underdogs against a squad as Croatia that features one of the best midfield in the tournament.
That said, Croatia’s performance against Denmark in the last round left a lot to be desired so Russian fans started thinking that their team could go further. In the way to record this huge achievement and beat the favourites, Denis Cherchesov’s men have to stay adherent to some tactical principles.
First and foremost, with Croatia probably lining up their usual starting XI, a direct kind of football is expected from Zlatko Dalic’s side. It means Russia must cover depth, particularly preventing them to easily reach Ivan Perisic, Ante Rebic, and Mario Mandzukic up top.
To do it, Cherchesov will have to take care of both Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield. Russia lined up a flexible four-man backline against Spain and they could reply this shape against Croatia to maintain vertical compactness.
By the way, Cherchesov still could come back to a more evident 4-2-3-1 formation. It would mean that Yuri Gazinskiy, probably returning to the starting formation, and Roman Zobnin will have to put pressure on Modric and Rakitic with both players that are able to play smart passes even through tight lines. At the same time, as mentioned before, Russia’s back four will have to face the physical presence of forwards such as Rebic and Mandzukic. With Fedor Kudryashov who should replace Yuri Zhirkov at left-back, Russia could face trouble on that side against Rebic. But another key battleground could be on the opposite flank where Mario Fernades will take care of Perisic. The Brazilian-born right-back showed top-class defensive qualities against Spain when he posted 19 interceptions and he probably will have to reply his performance against Croatian winger.
Starting keeper continuing to prove his critics wrong
Other than stopping Croatian attacks on the flanks and pressing Modric and Rakitic, Russians probably would have need of a strong performance by their starting goalkeeper. An easy scapegoat both at the 2014 World Cup – where he dropped a ball cross the against South Korea and also produced another costly mistake against Algeria – and at Euro 2016 – due to a poor display against Wales – Igor Akinfeev was a divisive player going through Russia 2018. That despite the fact Akinfeev is the third all-time keeper for Russia in terms of clean sheets, better than Lev Yashin and Rinat Dasayev. True to be told, he produced these clean sheets against the weak Russian Premier League teams. An overrated goalkeeper for many, Akinfeev stayed away from big mistakes so far, helping his side to get past the round-of-16.
After Akinfeev stopped Spain last round – notably saving penalties from Koke and Iago Aspas – Russia need their no.1 to produce another good performance against Croatia to hope to reach the semifinal.
Playing on counter
As usual, Russia will be happy to let the rivals retain possession. This also depends on the fact that both Russian centre-backs – Ilya Kutepov and Sergey Ignashevich – are slow-paced and beatable by fast forwards.
So, Cherchesov’s side will try to damage Croatia with quick passing and fast counters. To play this way, the home side will have to be good out of possession, in order to win the balls needed to counter-attack. In terms of team’s defending, Russia could line up in a 4-4-2 shape with Aleksandr Golovin joining Dzyuba up top. Pressing should be not high with Cherchesov liking to have Russia defending deep in their own territory.
That said, once the ball is gained, a pivotal part of Russian offensive game plan will be the combinations between Denis Cheryshev and Golovin on the left flank. This side has been very important in Russia’s offence so far, with Cheryshev, Golovin and Zhirkov pushing up in a well-coordinated manner.
Unfortunately, Cherchesov cannot count on Zhirkov against Croatia so will be interesting to take a look at how Kudryashov will fill Zhirkov’s shoes with Russia in possession: will the 31-years old full-back push high up the pitch as the Zenit’s player or would he rather play more defensively?
The lowest ranked team in the World Cup, Russia are the unlikely host at the fourth round of this competition. Many pundits think their run will come to an end against the star-loaded Croatia.
That said, Cherchesov’s men defeated Spain showing they can beat almost every team. If Akinfeev will play another huge game and if Russia will defend well, they could make troubles for Croatia. Their commitment is out of the question and they have nothing to lose so, should Russia be able to keep the score tied for a long time, they could make Croatia panicking. This could switch game’s momentum from Dalic’s side to Cherchesov’s team and contribute to make Russia reaching their first a World Cup semi-final since they achieved it in 1966 when they still was known as Soviet Union.