GUUS HIDDINK had already forged a reputation as a coach of the highest class but his exploits in his two years with Russia have seen his stock rise even higher.
Not only has he guided the Russians to the brink of their first major final in 20 years following their 3-1 extra-time win over his native Holland in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals, he has also lifted the country back into world football’s elite.
Midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov said: “He has shown us how it is possible to play. He knew how we should play against Sweden and Greece (in the group stages) and then against Holland.
“He knows about our technical abilities, about our physical abilities, and what we need to do to win. He’s a top coach.”
Fellow midfielder Ivan Saenko, part of an engine room that overwhelmed the Dutch for long spells, added: “We are playing our own style — quick, with short passes. Our coach does not stop telling us that we can beat whichever team is put in front of us.”
The Russians’ 4-1 defeat to Spain in their opening group game reinforced what many people in England thought of Hiddink’s team after their 3-0 loss in qualifying at Wembley — that they were technically gifted but physically weak and porous at the back.
So after what we have seen from the Russians over the past week, how does Hiddink explain what happened at Wembley that night when his team were steamrollered?
“England had a very good day that day — maybe the only one they had!” said the wily Dutchman. “The team was in progress then. I kept on changing and looking for players who were sometimes not even playing for the high-ranked clubs in Russia.
“It is a rather young team but one thing I have found out is that this team is learning quickly in a short time about the tactical laws of the international game and also strategically to focus themselves on the weaknesses to neutralise the strengths of the opponents. Holland left-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst admits Russia have the talent to go all the way but has spotted some chinks in their armour.
“At set-pieces, you can get at them and that’s where we had our best chances and where we scored our goal.
“But you have to stay together defensively. If you give them space, they will punish you.”
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