Russia will have a familiar face in the dugout when Northern Ireland travel to Moscow as both sides begin their journey to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – a familiar face who will be hoping to make a better fist of his new job than he did of his previous one.
Fabio Capello takes charge of his first competitive match as Russia head coach against the Irish with his acrimonious departure from England still fresh in everybody’s memory.
Whether Capello genuinely believed he had been undermined by the FA when they decided to strip John Terry of the captaincy (again) and took a stand on principle or, actually, both parties used the sorry affair to bring the Italian’s tenure to a mutually beneficial end is open to question, but one thing that isn’t debatable is the fact there were few tears shed when Capello packed his bags.
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The former AC Milan coach’s stint as England boss was a disaster characterised by low squad morale, bizarre extra-curricular decisions and a staggeringly bad grasp of English, and how he fares with Russia will be intriguing.
Northern Ireland have lost ten of their last 13 fixtures, failing to score on eight occasions, and it is inconceivable they can get something in Russia.
He was bullish when he was unveiled (even having a pop at the FA in the process) and he has been quick to make his mark, dropping experienced stars in Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Yury Zhirkov and Pavel Pogrebnyak from the squad – possibly in recognition that he didn’t do similar sooner when in charge of England.
And he will see a home match against Northern Ireland as the perfect opportunity to get his tenure off to a winning start. The bookmakers see it that way, too, with the Russians 19/100 to get three points. The draw is 21/4 and Northern Ireland are 13/1, which gives you some indication of their task.
New boss Michael O’Neill has goodwill in the bank, perhaps more so because he is not his universally unpopular predecessor Nigel Worthington, but opening with two defeats, a 3-0 loss at home to Norway and a 6-0 thrashing against Holland, show the size of his task as Northern Ireland just don’t have the players to compete with the best.
A 3-3 draw against Finland was more encouraging, but they are conceding goals for fun – 29 have been shipped in their last ten outings – and their form gives you little confidence they can get a result in Moscow. Northern Ireland have lost ten of their last 13 fixtures, failing to score on eight occasions, and it is inconceivable they can get something in Russia.
Capello is taking over a nation with a great recent record. The loss to Greece that knocked them out of Euro 2012 in the group stages (which should never have happened given the way they started the tournament) is Russia’s only defeat in 18 games and their price to beat Ireland is about right.
But to get more value, take the 13/20 on Russia to win to nil. Northern Ireland’s lack of goals is apparent and Russia have kept five clean sheets in their last eight home games.
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