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Imagining a Soviet Union National Team

It will be 25 years this Boxing Day since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was dissolved and while that has opened the door for a whole raft of burgeoning nations to take the international football stage, it has left many wondering if, from a footballing standpoint at least, they would have been better off staying together.

In the spirit of John, Paul, George and Ringo some 48 years ago, it’s time to go ‘Back in the USSR’ and select a fantasy XI which might not be as awe-inspiring as a Yugoslavia dream team, it still looks like a side who could trouble anyone on their day, even though it’s mostly Russian with smaller contributions from Ukraine, Armenia and Uzbekistan.

(Formation: 4-2-3-1)

Goalkeeper: Igor Akinfeev (Russia/CSKA Moscow)

Probably the most obvious decision in this process was who would stand between the sticks. The CSKA stopper is a distinguished member of the “Lev Yashin Club”, which is for Russian and former Soviet goalkeepers who have 100 or more clean sheets to their name, and recently equalled Rinat Dasayev’s record of 232 clean sheets for Russia/USSR. Like Yashin, Akinfeev is a one-club man, despite tempting offers from some of Europe’s top clubs.

Right-Back: Igor Smolnikov (Russia/Zenit St Petersburg)

Like a fair few players in this team, Smolnikov will be a little-known name outside of his home country, but that shouldn’t mean he hasn’t got talent. He was fairly late in making his international debut in November 2013 aged 25 and missed out on the World Cup the following summer, but since then he has gone from strength to strength having had some all-important Champions League experience with Zenit and winning the league with them last season.

Centre-Back: Yaroslav Rakitskiy (Ukraine/Shakhtar Donetsk)

Not many in Western Europe will know much about this defender either but he obviously has some quality to him given that he’s attracted the attention of Barcelona no less. At 26, Rakitskiy still has plenty of years ahead of him having won 38 caps for his (actual) country andhaving  been a crucial part of five consecutive Ukranian Premier League titles for Shakhtar between 2009 and 2014.

Centre-Back: Sergei Ignashevich (Russia/CSKA Moscow)

While we’re on the subject of years, at 36, Ignashevich doesn’t have many of them left in his career, but as the captain of Russia, the next logical step would be to make him the Soviet Union captain. He is his country’s highest-capped player with 114 appearances and the highest-capped Russian player for any national team (including the Soviet Union/CIS), recently overtaking one of his assistant coaches at CSKA, Viktor Onopko.

Left-Back: Vitaliy Denisov (Uzbekistan/Lokomotiv Moscow)

It was tough to choose between Denisov and Vyacheslav Shevchuk of Ukraine and Shakhtar Donetsk but the more youthful Uzbek edges it on this occasion. Another “mind-blowing” fact is that the 29-year-old is the only player in this team not to represent a UEFA nation. This is because Uzbekistan ply their trade in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which on the surface makes it easier for the Russian Premier League’s best left-back of 2013-14 to play in major tournaments.

Defensive Midfielder: Igor Denisov (Russia/Dynamo Moscow)

No relation to Vitaliy Denisov but in terms of footballing ability, they’re actually a lot closer. Igor Densiov is known as much (maybe more) for his long list of controversies as he is for his skills with a football. These include snubbing a late call-up to the Euro 2008 squad from then-manager Guus Hiddink, a training ground bust-up with a coach at Zenit St Petersburg, verbally abusing an opposition manager and refusing to take the field until his Zenit contract was renegotiated. Apart from that, he’s a decent footballer with a UEFA Cup medal and 52 international caps.

Defensive Midfielder: Roman Shirokov (Russia/CSKA Moscow)

The 34-year-old is more of a deep-lying midfielder who likes to get forward a bit than a defensive midfielder, but that could combine well with fellow Russian Igor Denisov’s more “combative” style. Shirokov was a relative latecomer into international football when he made his debut in March 2008 aged 26, but was called up into their Euro 2008 squad two months later and has since established his place in the team. He’s had a “journeyman” career with stints at Rubin Kazan, Zenit St Petersburg and Spartak Moscow before returning to his first team CSKA Moscow in February of this year.

Right Midfielder: Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia/Borussia Dortmund)

It’s slightly strange that arguably the best player in this Soviet Union XI doesn’t come from the “big two” nations, which proves that there’s plenty of talent to be found in the smaller nations. It’s also worth pointing out that Mkhitaryan is one of only two players in this team to currently play his club football outside the former Soviet states, though he did feature for Shakhtar Donetsk before signing for Dortmund in 2013. The six-time Armenian Footballer of the year scored 29 goals in all competitions for Shakhtar in the 2012/13 season (as an attacking midfielder) before heading to Signal Iduna Park, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Left Midfielder: Yevhen Konoplyanka (Ukraine/Sevilla)

As a three-time Ukrainian Footballer of the Year, Konoplyanka can certainly claim to be one of the former USSR’s finest active footballers. He spent eight years at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine, where the high point was their run in the Europa League in 2014/15, eventually losing to his future employers Sevilla in the final.

Konoplyanka was a major factor in that run and attracted attention from a number of Premier League outfits last summer, but he chose La Liga. However, that hasn’t stopped clubs like Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur from chasing his signature.

Attacking Midfielder/Second Striker: Alan Dzagoev (Russia/CSKA Moscow)

Dzagoev’s value may have slightly faded since his star turn in Euro 2012, but there’s no doubt he would add even more attacking flair to this fantasy team and on his day, he is still capable of unlocking any defence in Europe. He was the joint top-scorer in Poland and Ukraine (shared with five others) with three goals and has won eight trophies with CSKA Moscow (including two league titles) since joining them in 2008. He has only scored three goals in 28 games in all domestic competitions this season, but at 25 years old, there’s still plenty of time to improve.

Striker: Artyom Dzyuba (Russia/Zenit St Petersburg)

Even though he’s 27 years old, Dzyuba is relatively inexperienced on the international stage with just 15 caps, but so far he’s made the most of this with eight goals, including six in his last seven. After nine years at Spartak Moscow (and several loan spells), he signed for Andre Villas-Boas’ Zenit St Petersburg and has been in the form of his life since then. He’e even scored six goals in the Champions League this season (same as Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez), but unfortunately, he won’t get the chence to add to that tally after Zenit’s defeat to Benfica in the last 16.


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