EURO 2020: Russia back on home soil after 2018 World Cup run

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s run to the quarterfinals at its home World Cup three years ago was a breakthrough. Since then, momentum has stalled.

Back on home soil for two of its three group games at this year’s European Championship, Russia wants to recapture the form which saw it beat Spain at the 2018 World Cup before a narrow loss to eventual finalist Croatia.

Russia can count on the roar of a home crowd once again at Euro 2020, with organizers preparing to allow 50% capacity in the cavernous Gazprom Arena, which can normally fit about 68,000 fans.

Russia will host Belgium and Finland in St. Petersburg before heading to Copenhagen to take on co-host Denmark.

The last World Cup put soccer back at the center of the national conversation in Russia after decades of underperformance on the field.

“We wanted to show the whole country that they can be proud of us, that soccer is alive,” Russia striker Artem Dzyuba said after the quarterfinal loss to Croatia.

Now they need to avoid another period of hibernation.

With coach Stanislav Cherchesov still at the helm, Russia has twice narrowly failed to win promotion to the top tier of the Nations League. Russia was all set to win its Nations League group until a dramatic slump in November with a 3-2 loss to Turkey and a 5-0 rout by Serbia. It ended up second.

Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup got harder when Russia lost to Slovakia 2-1 in March. They’re in the same group as Croatia.

Cherchesov has stuck by familiar faces ahead of Euro 2020. Six of the starters against Slovakia in March were over the age of 30, including Dzyuba, Brazil-born right back Mario Fernandes and 37-year-old winger Yuri Zhirkov. The team was one of the oldest at the World Cup, too.

A Premier League champion with Chelsea back in 2010, Zhirkov retired from international duty after the World Cup but returned the following year.

The big name missing since 2018 is goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, the hero of Russia’s World Cup penalty shootout win over Spain. He retired from international duty and Cherchesov has handed his spot to former backup Anton Shunin.

Monaco midfielder Alexander Golovin was a breakout star of the 2018 team and has become the main creative spark in Russia’s midfield. Emerging names include Lokomotiv Moscow winger Rifat Zhemaletdinov and Spartak Moscow striker Alexander Sobolev, who have both made their debuts within the last 12 months and add depth to the squad.

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