Euro 2016 news round-up: Leonid Slutsky’s ongoing battle to prove Russian sceptics wrong
Forced to give up playing football after falling from a tree rescuing a neighbour’s cat, Leonid Slutsky is now the saviour of the Russia team heading to Euro 2016.
The burly 45-year-old manager stepped in last year after Russia dismissed Italian Fabio Cappello. Slutsky orchestrated a dramatic turnaround – Russia won only two of their first six games then four on the trot under Slutsky –that fired Russia to the finals.
They now face a tough Group B against England, Wales and Slovakia and Slutsky says he also faces a continual battle against “scepticism” at home.
The Russian worked his way up from the lowest leagues to win back-to-back titles with CSKA Moscow, who he still manages alongside the national team and took to another title last month.
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Slutsky’s rise as a coach was built on early heartbreak. Born in 1971 in the southern Russian city of Volgograd he became a goalkeeper and signed with a local team on leaving school. After only 13 games, fate ended his career at the age of 19. A neighbour asked the teenager to get her cat down from a tree. He fell and shattered a knee.
“I spent a year in hospital. They told me it wouldn’t bend at all again,” Slutsky said in an interview with the daily Sovetsky Sport. “For a long time I worked hard to get better. I tried to return to playing football but it didn’t work out.”
Slutsky flung himself into football management, gaining a degree from a coaching academy that took him from lower-league football to FC Moscow, CSKA and finally the national team.
With Russia struggling under Capello’s direction, Slutsky’s success brought the spotlight. Capello, reportedly the world’s highest-paid coach, was sacked when qualification for Euro 2016 looked at risk.
Slutsky reinvigorated the squad. The four-game winning streak guaranteed an automatic ticket to France.
Despite the success, Slutsky says he still faces scepticism from fans and football experts because he was never a top-level player.
“There is a huge group, including the fans of CSKA, who are still convinced that my appointment at the club is an incredible error, and are waiting every day for my resignation,” Slutsky said. “When I was coaching kids, it was the same thing: scepticism and rejection.
“Maybe the reason is that my appearance, demeanour and way I communicate are not all according to the coaching manual.
“However hard I work, I have to keep proving something to someone.”
Elsewhere in Group B, England’s lack of international experience can work in their favour, Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge said as their opener against Russia looms.
Roy Hodgson’s starting line-up for Saturday’s match in Marseille is likely to include Tottenham Hotspur trio Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane, none of whom have played at a senior tournament.
Other squad members such as Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne, Everton’s John Stones and Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand only have a smattering of caps and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford made his debut against Australia only last month. Sturridge, 26, is relatively senior in a squad that is the youngest in the tournament.
“I don’t see why we can’t be successful because we’re young, I don’t think age has anything to do with it, it’s how we play as a team,” Sturridge said.
“It’s a young squad, and that’s a strength it’s not a weakness. We know that there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us because we’re England. I don’t feel there is any pressure on us. I feel like we will enjoy the occasion.
“If you go back to Manchester United, the Liverpool sides and all other clubs around the world who have had young squads and young players, they had a gelling period and became successful.”
After another injury-plagued season Sturridge is vying with the likes of Kane and Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy for a starting spot.
England’s only injury worry for the clash with Russia is Bertrand who did not train with the squad on Tuesday.
Giampiero Ventura will take over as Italy coach after Euro 2016, Italian Football Federation president Carlo Tavecchio announced on Tuesday, Italian media reported.
Former Torino coach Ventura replaces Antonio Conte, who heads for English Premier League giants Chelsea next season, after the European Championship in France from June 10-July 10.
While Conte was a three-time Serie A winner with Juventus, Ventura, 68, has a less impressive coaching CV in his three decades as a manager.
A modest player during his footballing career in the third division, Ventura’s coaching portfolio is equally modest, with no Uefa Champions League matches, and having only competed in the Europa League in 2013/14 with Torino.
He joined Torino in 2012, after several forays into Serie A with Cagliari (1998-1999), Sampdoria (2001-2002), Messina (2005-2006) and Bari (2009-2011).
Torino finished 12th in Serie A last season.
Updated: June 7, 2016 04:00 AM