After beating the Czech Republic 4-1 in their first game, the sense had been of a side finding form at the right time, of a settled side, barely changed from the one that reached the semi-final four years ago, playing with fluency, confidence and cutting edge.
But having taken the lead against Poland in their second game, Russia failed to finish them off and they paid the price against Greece in their third game, dominating the ball yet rarely looking as though they had the hardness to close the game out.
“What we didn’t believe could happen, happened,” said the former international midfielder Alexander Mostovoi, now a columnist for Sport-Express.
“The team that had played the worst beat the team that had played the best, the fastest. It turned out that they were not so weak and we were not so strong. Luck played an important role: the Greeks scored and we did not, but that happens quite a lot. With all the emotion, nobody knows how this could happen. But if you analyse it, Russia played three games at Euro 2012 that were completely different: in the first they were great, in the second they were average and the third… well, they did not play badly, but it was a nightmare.”
Nightmare is an apt word. There was something dreamlike about Russia from the off on Saturday. They started slowly, allowing Greece the first two chances of the game and immediately the thought occurred that they were a side who believed they were through. And after the first 10 minutes they began to play like it, having the next 14 chances in the game. Yet there was never a sense of urgency about them, never the clinical aspect they had demonstrated against the Czechs.
“Of course I’m very disappointed,” said the Khimki coach Aleksandr Tarkhonov. “The Russian mentality showed itself again: we cannot play in crucial games. Everybody remembers the play-offs for the World Cup against Slovenia — the same thing happened.”
Then, Guus Hiddink’s side dominated the first leg and went into a 2-0 lead only to concede a soft late goal, an away goal that cost them when they then lost the second leg in Slovenia 1-0.
“You could see the spirit in the Greeks,” Tarkhonov went on. “They were feisty while our players were placid. It’s hard to say why but it must be a question of psychology. I don’t think it’s to do with physical training or fatigue. And you can’t say we played really badly. In the first half we had chances and dominated the game but conceded after a terrible mistake form [Sergei] Ignashevich. After the break, everything was piecemeal and there was panic in attack rather than considered moves — confusion.”
Dick Advocaat, who has been grumpy even by his standards in the past few days, had announced before the tournament that he will leave the national team post to take over at PSV Eindhoven. What other changes there can be it’s hard to say. The forward Alan Dzagoev and the holding midfielder Igor Denisov apart, this is an ageing side, but there are fewer younger candidates to step up.
“It’s necessary to make a full analysis and develop an understanding of where we’re going and how to take football forward,” Tarkhonov said. “Everything is focused on the national side and youth football is left to develop on its own.
“We have to have consistency in the training of young payers — that’s the main problem. And now is the time for generational change. We have a lot of players over 30.”
Mostovoi was more cautious. “We’re not a team that suddenly appears and disappears. You shouldn’t expect fundamental changes. A lot of people will blame Advocaat but he took the team to the tournament and they played an excellent game against the Czechs.”
The issue now is who should replace him. For Tarkhonov at least, now is the time, after two Dutch coaches in a row, to return to a home-grown manager. “I believe we need to appoint a Russian specialist,” he said. “In recent years our play has become better to watch but less consistent: one game we play well and the next we falter.”
The truth though, is that the Russia job looks a thankless one: 15 of this 23-man squad will be 30 or over by the time of the World Cup.
With a little more precision in front of goal, without that dire error from Ignashevich, they probably would have made the last eight, but this was surely the final flourish of this Russia side — and the fact is that when they needed extra drive, to summon greater energy from their legs in those final minutes against Greece, they couldn’t do so.