Soccer-Russia underdogs in battle for Euro 2020 knockout stage

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FILE PHOTO: Euro 2020 Qualifier - Group I - San Marino v Russia
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By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia face long odds to reach the Euro 2020 knockout stages as they bid to fill the void left by the retirement of talismanic goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev in a squad short of attacking depth.

Russia are in Group B with Belgium, the world's top-ranked team, Denmark and surprise qualifiers Finland.

"We know our opponents and their strengths," Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov told Sport Express newspaper.

"Our goal is to prepare as much as possible. The first hurdle is our group and within it there are three more hurdles: Belgium, Finland and Denmark."

Russia finished last in their group at the 2016 tournament in France when violent clashes between Russian and English fans in Marseille overshadowed the team's listless performance.

The Russians have not won in their previous five games at the Euros, their last victory coming in a 4-1 win over the Czech Republic in their first game at the 2012 tournament.

They have not got out of the group stage since unexpectedly reaching the semi-finals in 2008.

Russia bounced back from the 2016 Euro debacle by reaching the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in post-Soviet history as tournament hosts in 2018, but retirements and injuries have depleted their squad.

The most significant void is between the posts.

Akinfeev quit international soccer after the 2018 World Cup and no other keeper has made a convincing case to be his long-term replacement.

Cherchesov reached out to Akinfeev this month to gauge his interest in making a comeback but was rebuffed by the 35-year-old, who plays for CSKA Moscow in the Russian Premier League.

"As of today Igor is not ready to help us," Cherchesov told Sport Express. "That case is closed."

In the absence of Akinfeev's acrobatic saves, Russia will rely heavily on leading striker Artyom Dzyuba and attacking midfielder Alexander Golovin.

Golovin, who plays for AS Monaco, had a breakthrough at the last World Cup and is one of the few Russians to play for clubs in western Europe.

Dzyuba, on the brink of setting a national goalscoring record, will need to capitalise on every opportunity, especially in the air where the towering striker dominates.

The charismatic national team captain helped Zenit St Petersburg to their third consecutive Russian Premier League title this month and needs to maintain his scoring touch for the team to have a chance to advance. [L8N2MY4VV]

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Ken Ferris)