Euro 2012: Russia hoping to do better this time
Few football fans knew much about Russia heading into the last European Championship, where the young squad turned into one of the teams of the tournament by reaching the semifinals.
Four years later, Russia is built around a nucleus of the same players, is again led by a Dutch coach, and will be looking to go a step further in Poland and Ukraine.
Russia coach Dick Advocaat has fielded a largely unchanged lineup since the last European Championship, building trust and experience among players who almost all compete in Russia's national league.
"It will be to our big advantage as we read each other by just a glance,'' Russia forward Roman Shirokov said.
The players also know the coach well since Advocaat led Zenit St. Petersburg to the UEFA Cup title in 2008, a run that underscored the potent threat of Russia's national team on the eve of the last European Championship.
Advocaat took over from Guus Hiddink after Russia's failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, reuniting him with several stars from his time in St. Petersburg.
"I already had worked (in Russia) and of course I knew the players well,'' Advocaat said. "I just built on a group of CSKA players and Zenit players.''
That lack of fundamental change has fueled criticism that the squad is getting too old, but playmaker Andrei Arshavin disagrees.
"There are advantages because we understand each other well,'' Arshavin said in an interview with UEFA. "We know each other. We're used to each other.''
Arshavin, who is back at his boyhood club Zenit on loan from Arsenal, said he hoped for some young players to force their way into the squad "because no team can live without being renewed.''
It could come at the expense of midfielder Sergei Semak, who captained Russia at Euro 2008.
"Advocaat hardly regards me as member of his team but I will do my best in the final matches of the Russian league season to prove that I'm ready to play,'' Arshavin said.
Russia plays in Group A against co-host Poland, the Czech Republic and Euro 2004 champion Greece.
"The European Championship is a special event where all teams are highly motivated,'' Russia striker Alexander Kerzhakov said. "Definitely Poland, which is playing at home, will be the most difficult opponent, though the Czechs and Greece are also tough opponents.''
Russia has fond memories of playing Greece in the European Championship. It beat eventual tournament winner Greece in the group stage in 2004 and broke down the stubborn Greek defense in Salzburg four years ago for a 1-0 victory that kick-started Russia's campaign after a demoralizing 4-1 loss to eventual champion Spain in its first match.
Russia has never won an international tournament as an independent state. The Soviet Union team featuring goalkeeping great Lev Yashin won the first ever European Championship in 1960.
Associated Press writer Leonid Chizhov in Moscow contributed to this report.