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Russian national soccer team face a star-studded England side at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on Wednesday in a match crucial to their Euro 2008 qualification campaign
The Russian national soccer team face a star-studded England side at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on Wednesday in a match crucial to their Euro 2008 qualification campaign. Following England's comfortable if pedestrian 3-0 victory over another former Soviet republic, Estonia, on October 13, Steve McClaren's side is in second place in Group E - three points behind leaders Croatia and five points ahead of Russia, who have a game in hand. The first two teams in the group, which also includes Andorra, Macedonia and Israel, qualify for the final stages of the tournament, to be held in Austria and Switzerland next year. England come to the Luzhniki knowing that victory will assure them of qualification, while a draw will leave them needing only a point from their final match against Croatia, on November 21 at Wembley. However, Russia have not lost at the Luzhniki since 1999, when they were beaten 3-2 by then world champions France, and Wednesday's match promises to be a lot closer than England's 3-0 victory in London in September. Russian soccer has seen massive investment of late by oligarchs and oil and gas companies, and, while results have not yet made the world sit up and take notice, there is a growing optimism around the team which reflects the country's political and economic revival. The rebirth of Russian soccer has much to do with the Dutchman Guus Hiddink, appointed coach of the Russian side in 2006. Hiddink, one of the world's most respected coaches, has dumped the old guard of Russian soccer in favor of a new generation of players, who have subsequently injected a much-needed energy and enthusiasm into the side. Relations between Russia and England have been at a low recently, with extradition squabbles and diplomatic expulsions, plus President Putin's comment in July that, "Britain forgets it is no longer a colonial power and that Russia was never its colony." However, when asked by a journalist at Tuesday's Moscow press conference if the political subtext of the match might get to the players, England's captain, John Terry, merely laughed. Of course, there were those who doubted that the Chelsea defender understood the term "political subtext," but his answer was indicative of a general desire on the part of both teams to downplay the upcoming match's political significance. Wednesday's game is set to be the biggest in Russia since at least 1999, when Russia faced Ukraine in a Euro 2000 qualifier, again needing a victory. That match was marred by a fatal, and catastrophic, error by the Russian goalkeeper, Alexander Filimonov, who somehow contrived to punch a harmless-looking cross by Andrei Shevchenko into his own net, leveling scores at 1-1, and putting paid to Russian hopes of qualification. Russia will be hoping that history does not repeat itself on Wednesday. The game is to take place on the Luzhniki's artificial pitch, a fact that has been played up by the English media, who have suggested that the surface will give Russia an unfair advantage. However, Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester United and England defender, was not unduly concerned about the plastic pitch, telling UEFA Web site that, "Russia have more experience playing on the pitch in Moscow, but I think our quality can come through. We will apply ourselves and make sure we win the game in the right manner." England will be without John Terry, who was withdrawn from the squad after a training session at the Luzhniki. Michael Owen, who had been expected to miss the game, is fit, however. Russia will be playing without Igor Akinfeyev, the team's undisputed No 1 goalkeeper, and Spartak Moscow's midfielder Vladimir Bystrov. The Russian Football Union reported that it had received some 600,000 ticket applications for the game, and touts have been selling tickets on the streets around the Luzhniki with 300-400% mark-ups. Security is to be provided by members of the Russian elite security force, the OMON, working alongside local police. Kick off is at 7 p.m. Moscow time (3 p.m. GMT).
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