Guus Hiddink is doing it again. Russia's improvement with Hiddink at the helm is taking a gradual but familiar turn. As with South Korea and Australia, the defense has upgraded with the ability to play 90+ minutes and minimize defensive lapses. This without the services of Igor Akinfeev, the most talented goalie since Lev Yashin, out with a season ending knee surgery.
The Russian squad dodged a bullet by holding Croatia to a draw, 0-0 by neutralizing the dangerous Eduardo Da Silva, Croatia's Brazilian born phenom who had been perfect so far with 6 goals in 6 matches. The Russian defense was once again stout and with some luck and the woodwork managed to keep out close calls from Josip Simunic, Luka Modric, Mladen Petric, Vedran Corluka, and Eduardo Silva.
The Russians have never been known for their defensive discipline and their lapses have always been punished in previous editions of the World Cup and Euro. Most Russians still remember the 2002 World Cup fiasco which saw them crashing out of a weak group that consisted of Japan, Tunisia, and Belgium. It led to riots in Moscow.
Under Hiddink's guidance, the Russian defense is gradually becoming the best in this Euro with the Berezutski twins, Vasili and Aleksei. Vasili plays on the left and is known for his speed, forays up front, and crossing ability. Aleksei Berezutski plays on the right and is the point man for set pieces with his considerable aerial prowess. They bookend Sergei Ignashevich, a talented central defender while the highly rated Aleksandr Anyukov sits back in a five player midfield formation with players of caliber like Valdimir Bystrov who is establishing a fearsome reputation as a player of tremendous pace and skill, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, a rising star, and long time Torpedo Moscow's favourite Igor Shemshov. Up front is FC Sevilla's striker Aleksandr Kherzakov, who scored a hattrick against Andorra and forms a dangerous tandem with Russia's Michael Owen, Dmitri Sychev.
Yes, Hiddink's men after a slow start are looking self assured. And England will meet them on 12 September and again on 17 October. By then the two spots for the Euro finals could well have been decided in this tough group that sees Croatia, Israel, Russia, and England all tightly clustered together in Group E.