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Sports

Russian Soccer Has Bright Future Despite Defeat, Says Coach

Many Russians probably felt upset after the 3-0 defeat by Spain that saw their side miss out on a European Championship final for the first time since the Soviet Union achieved the feat in 1988.

Russia's Dutch head coach Guus Hiddink concentrates watching the semifinal match between Russia and Spain in Vienna

Despite watching Russia fall at the semi-final stage, Hiddink sees a bright future

However, while Russia's loss to the Netherlands in Munich 20 years ago unknowingly signaled the end of an era for Russian football - the Soviet Union collapsed three years later - this seems to be only the beginning for Guus Hiddink's talented side.

Russia had the youngest squad at Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland and the Dutchman believes the experience of playing at a major tournament will help his players to develop into even better soccer players.

Hiddink singled out Andrei Arshavin, who set Euro 2008 alight with his performances against Sweden and the Dutch but failed to make any kind of impression against Spain, when Marcos Senna tracked his every move.

Russia's Andrei Arshavin, left, is tackled by Spain's Carles Puyol

Arshavin was a marked man throughout the semi-final

"Spain focused on him. It's good for him to have these tough games. You have to improve to survive in the very big leagues," said the Dutchman.

Spain coach Luis Aragones was only too happy to explain after the win how he snuffed out the threat of the Zenit St. Petersburg star. "Arshavin plays very freely so we decided that in every area one player was meant to keep an eye on him. If Senna left him, then another player took up the job," the Spain coach said.

Arshavin was as quiet as a church mouse against Spain but it would be foolhardy to suggest the international stage has heard the last word from the Zenit star.

He had been the talk of the town all week, and with good reason.

Missing on big night

Russia's Andrei Arshavin reacts at the end of the semi-final match between Russia and Spain

Arshavin was shackled by Spain and failed to shine

The Euro 2008 semi-final against Spain was billed as the Russia number 10's hour, with the world and his wife waiting for a command performance after two stunning shows against Sweden and Holland.

The 27-year-old, small in stature but big on ability, had been included in Hiddink's squad despite a two-match ban picked up for his sending off in their final qualifier against Andorra.

That forced him to sit out Russia's opening two games, the first rout by Spain and the win over holders Greece.

He returned for the third game, terrorizing Sweden and scoring in the 2-0 win then repeated that showing and scoring the clincher in the 3-1 extra time win over Holland that put Russia into their first European semi-final.

But his big night was a complete washout as torrential rain, a less than razor-sharp Russia and a potential title-winning display from La Furia Roja conspired against him.

Bouncing back

Hiddink tipped the player who has received praise from someone who knows a thing or two about soccer, Zinedine Zidane, to bounce back from this blip on his CV.

"When he did well in the Sweden game after being suspended (for the first two matches) and then also against Holland it's normal that the team and he got lots of attention," said the Dutchman. "And then a lot of people are writing that he can be a top player in any league."

Andrei Arshavin during a training session

Hiddink believes his star player needed a tough game

"He can but Spain focused on him and he had some difficult moments," said Hiddink. "But that's good for him to have a tough game and to see what he has to do to improve to survive in the big leagues. He's got the quality but it's good for him and for us to see the difficulties he has to overcome."

Arshavin is eyeing a big money move west, away from UEFA Cup winners St. Petersburg to the club of his boyhood dreams Barcelona who hours before Thursday's semi-final reportedly made an approach for him.

"Barcelona have made a formal proposal to Zenit for the purchase of Arshavin. We will only talk about this once Andrei returns to Zenit." an official from the Russian side told the BBC.

His agent, Dennis Lachter, put a 25-million-euro tag on the player's head. "It's time for him to look for new challenges, and this is a great opportunity for him," he told Spanish television station La Sexta. "Everything depends on how interested Barcelona are and how much the player wants to play there.

Praise from Zidane

Zinedine Zidane talks during a television interview in Paris

France legend Zidane praised the Russian star

French soccer legend Zidane gave the playmaker his stamp of approval. "It is his first major finals and he hasn't stopped posing questions for the opposition, as if he has been always doing just that," said the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winner.

"He had a great season with Zenit St. Petersburg (he was named Russian player of the year after they won the title for the first time since the fall of Communism and went on to win the UEFA Cup), but the Euro is another matter entirely. I see it like this: The Euro is even tougher than the World Cup. Thus, anyone who has a huge Euro is set to have a great career."

His bewitching performances have also cast a spell over UEFA's technical director Andy Roxburgh.

"Arshavin didn't play the first two games, and he brought a spark of magic. And he made a good team, Russia, become even better," the former Scotland manager said at the start of the week.

In addition to Arshavin, Hiddink believes the other members of his current squad can improve, he is also aware that new blood is needed if Russia are to finish ahead of Euro 2008 finalists Germany in their qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup.

Great days ahead

Euro 2008 has highlighted his side's lack of strength in depth where, for example, Russia failed to adequately replace the suspended Denis Kolodin in defense against Spain.

Russia's Andrei Arshavin, right, celebrates with fellow team members after scoring his side's second goal during the group D match between Russia and Sweden

Hiddink says his young team has happy days ahead

"It shows that we are lacking in the depth of Russian players," said the 61-year-old. "The overall quality of the squad counts in the long run of a tournament. The big teams know how to get to the end and how to use their experience. They also have the better quality overall."

Russia kept pace with Spain for the first period but ran out of steam in the second half and never looked like getting back into it once Xavi Hernandez broke the deadlock on 50 minutes. Further goals from Daniel Guiza and David Silva completed the win.

"If you keep it scoreless then it's okay," said Hiddink. "But once you go one down and don't equalize in the next 15 minutes, you have to open up and it is difficult to catch an experienced team."

While missing out on Sunday's final is a major disappointment, Hiddink said his side would regroup for the upcoming World Cup challenge against Germany, Finland, Wales, Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein.

"Of course we are disappointed now but now we are going to relax and then focus on the upcoming difficult qualification," he said.