|Profiles - World Cup Teams - Russia|
Until a favourable draw grouped them with Belgium, Tunisia and Japan, Russia
seemed to be facing an uphill battle just to avoid a first-round exit this
Many Russian experts doubt their team's ability to make any impact on the world stage, pointing to problems in almost every aspect of the game: physical, tactical and mental.
'They don't have any of the prerequisites to be among the top teams,' says former international Yevgeny Lovchev, who played for the Soviet Union in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
'Simply speaking, the current level of Russian football is weak, therefore it doesn't produce top quality players necessary for achieving success in competitions like the World Cup.'
'I don't think Russia are capable of achieving anything worthwhile in the World Cup,' said another former Spartak and Soviet defender, Alexander Bubnov.
'One just has to look at recent performances of Russia's national team and our leading clubs in the international arena.'
Some experts say that the problems start with coaching.
Despite winning eight domestic league titles with Spartak Moscow, Oleg Romantsev has little to show for his success at international level.
His critics point to the 1996 European championships in England, where the Romantsev-led Russians, regarded by some as one of the favourites, finished last in their first round group.
To be fair, the team's current make-up does not leave Romantsev much room to improvise.
The ageing and slow defence, predictable midfield and the absence of powerful and speedy strikers could spell trouble for the Russians right from the start.
The defensive core, including captain Viktor Onopko, stopper Yuri Nikiforov and right fullback Omari Tetradze, have played together since the 1994 World Cup in the United States, where the Russians were also eliminated in the first round. Since then, the defence has not got any better or quicker.
In midfield, a lot depends on playmaker Alexander Mostovoi, but much-touted Spartak captain Yegor Titov has shown little progress in recent years while 18-year-old Marat Izmailov looks a bit young and inexperienced to carry the load.
Up front, the Russians possess only one real threat in Spartak striker Vladimir Beschastnykh, who led his team with seven goals in World Cup qualifiers, including a hat-trick in the final European group one game against Switzerland.
The only bright spot is in goal, where Russia can rely on Lokomotiv keeper Ruslan Nigmatullin, who has received a number of offers from leading European clubs this season, including Italian giants Lazio and Juventus.
Despite all Russia's shortcomings, Romantsev remains cautiously optimistic.
'I know that if everyone plays to the best of his ability and gives everything he's got, we have a chance to do well,' he said. 'But don't press me to predict on how we're going to do because I wouldn't want to say more than that.'