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Russia's Roman Shirokov: England are favourites but we have talent to triumph

The veteran Russia captain says England's opening Euro 2016 opponents are a more attacking force under the coaching of Leonid Slutsky and plays down the potential volatility of a possible meeting with Ukraine.

Not every player at Euro 2016 would be content to discuss drugs, hooligans and foreign policy but then Roman Shirokov's career has been more unusual than many. Russia's captain once faked a broken leg to cover up an unexcused absence and initially he was known more for drinking violations and barbed comments than for his play.

Nowadays it is difficult to see this wilder side of Shirokov, who is soft-spoken and reserved in person, with a disarming smile. The 34-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder may have mellowed off the pitch but on it his will to win remains as strong as ever, as England can expect to discover when the teams meet in Marseille on Saturday night.

England's most recent meeting with Russia was in a Euro 2008 qualifier, when the home team upset Steve McClaren's side 2-1 in front of a deafening crowd of 80,000 in Moscow. Russia went on to reach the semi-finals; England failed to reach the tournament. Speaking to the Guardian, Shirokov says that although England 'are rightly the favourites', Russia have the talent and the coaching to defeat them again.

'Before the match, you can say that someone is the favourite, and someone else isn't,' he says. 'But the match always starts off 50-50. And we won't surrender prematurely, and we certainly won't surrender to England.'

Despite injury problems and a chequered record over recent years, Russia hope they can reach at least the last 16 under Leonid Slutsky, who won all four of his qualifiers after replacing Fabio Capello as coach last August to guide the team to these finals.

The politics surrounding Russian sport could yet distract from the team's achievements, though. If Slutsky's side advance, they may end up playing Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists continue occasionally to clash with government troops. Ukraine's preliminary squad notably included no one who plays for a Russian club, although the final 23 did list Oleksandr Zinchenko of Ufa. Shirokov says the two sides understand that, if they meet, the pitch is 'not a place to have it out over things that don't relate to football'.

He also dismissed reports that Russian hooligans had threatened to attack English fans in France (five Britons were beaten in Moscow before the Euro 2008 qualifying match). 'There are hooligans everywhere, I don't think they'll show up there and beat up anyone,' Shirokov says. 'I don't think there's anything to be afraid of.'

The potential exclusion of Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics for systematic doping and a string of scandals with the supplement meldonium have also cast a long shadow. Fifa conducted a surprise drug test on FC Rostov players in May after rumours of meldonium use, and Uefa later conducted an unannounced early-morning doping test on 10 members of the Russia team at their hotel in Switzerland.

Despite recent revelations of an elaborate cover-up of performance-enhancing drug use at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Shirokov denies that Russia has a widespread doping problem. He blames the many sports-related scandals in part on politics - Russia's 'foreign policy provokes them to nip at us here and there'- and argues that there are American equivalents to meldonium that have not yet been banned.

'It's possible some take something individually, but athletes in other countries can also take something individually,' he says. 'There's definitely no [doping] system here.'

For Russia's football side, unlike for the track and field team, things have been looking up of late. Although Russia failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, were eliminated in the first round at Euro 2012 and did not manage a win in a weak group at the 2014 World Cup, a recent turnaround has hinted at greater things. After a defeat by Austria in June that left Russia third in their qualifying group, the nation turned to CSKA Moscow's Slutsky. On dual duty, he led CSKA to their third consecutive Russian title last month after the goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who is also first choice for the national team, made a hair-raising double save in the 86th minute.

Whereas Capello was known to put an emphasis on defence, Slutsky has added a stronger attacking element, giving his wide players more freedom. In a recent friendly against the Czech Republic, Slutsky's starting lineup included three forwards, something rarely seen previously. 'If we play attacking football, control the ball more and pressure our opponents, we have every chance,' Shirokov says of the team's ambitions to reach the knockout phase.

He says Slutsky's more hands-on, less formal coaching style was also a better fit. 'For Russians it's important when you have contact with the coach and a freer atmosphere : But [Capello] had a slightly different approach,' he explains, adding of the Italian that the team should nonetheless 'be thankful that he was here and improved some things'.

According to the editor of the Sport Express newspaper, Artur Petrosyan, who has won a large following tweeting in English about Russian football: 'Russia's main trump card is : the relaxedness of the players. They're not nervous like they were under Capello and can be creative on the field.'

The epitome of this new creativity was the CSKA midfielder Alan Dzagoev, a substitute under Capello who emerged under Slutsky to take a lead playmaking role. But Dzagoev has been ruled out by injury after inspiring CSKA to the title (it emerged that the ebullient Dzagoev, who had been dancing on the plane home after the championship-clinching win at Rubin Kazan, had broken a bone in his foot during the match).

If the new relaxed style is Russia's trump card, then injuries and age - they are the second-oldest team at the tournament - are their main disadvantages. Shirokov suffered a minor leg muscle injury in training and did not play against the Czech Republic, but returned to feature in Sunday's 1-1 friendly draw with Serbia.

The midfielder Igor Denisov pulled out of the squad the following day with a hamstring injury and the former Chelsea left-back Yuri Zhirkov, absent because of a persistent achilles problem, will - like Dzagoev - be hard to replace. Another experienced hand, Russia's all-time leading scorer Alexander Kerzhakov, was overlooked after spending the spring on loan at Zurich from Zenit Saint Petersburg.

'What kind of team are we if one person drops out, and we can't overcome that?' Shirokov says when asked about the loss of Dzagoev.

All this leaves Shirokov as one of the team's most accomplished veterans. Regarded these days as a moral authority, he acts as an example for youngsters such as the Zenit forwards Artyom Dzyuba and Alexander Kokorin and the Krasnodar forward Fyodor Smolov. He also retains his scoring touch, getting a late winner against Portugal in a friendly in November. The editor of Sports.ru, Yury Dud, calls him a 'wildcard' who can 'come out in the last 30 minutes and change the course of the game'.

Shirokov says he is looking forward to facing England and their captain, Wayne Rooney, who is a favourite of his seven-year-old son. 'It's a good test against strong players,' he said. 'We're up for it, and so am I.'

theguardian.com, 10 June 2016

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