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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Wakes Up in Time To Witness Elimination

A Russian team that rode into England on the crest of a 17-game undefeated run and was ranked third in the world by FIFA returned to Moscow on Thursday with its tail between its legs, soundly outplayed in the first round of Euro 96.


In its last game, Russia salvaged one point against the Czech Republic after playing to a refreshing 3-3 draw. But even the days leading up to Wednesday's match promised little for the beleaguered side.


On Monday, head coach Oleg Romantsev dismissed the squad's feared striker, Sergei Kiryakov, who plays with Karlsruhe in Germany, from the team for "damaging other players' morale."


"I don't know how long my career will last," Romantsev said, "but I will never go back to Kiryakov."


On Tuesday, the entire team canceled practice to go gift shopping.


So perhaps what is most remarkable about Russia's England experience is that after playing 265 minutes of quite unremarkable soccer, the squad had a five-minute frame in which it seemed destined to make the quarterfinals in Birmingham.


Down 2-0 to the Czech Republic after the first 20 minutes and needing to win by two goals to retain any chance of advancing, Russia looked very much like a squad that has long ago packed its bags and made flight reservations for a trip back home.


Romantsev, who had appeared with tears in his eyes at a post-game press conference after the team was trampled by Juergen Klinsmann and the Germans, had little to say to his players at halftime.


"I told them, let's not be too concerned about who played better in the first half," Romantsev was quoted as saying after the game. "Lets go out there and have some fun playing soccer."


Judging from the previous two games' experience, Romantsev had little hope the side would rejuvenate itself.


Russia played two outstanding first halves against Italy and Germany, even at halftime of both games and in spots outplaying its opponents, only to lose all vision and combination play by the game's end.


But on Wednesday, a second-half near-miracle occurred.


First scoring on Alexander Mostovoi's glancing header in the in the 48th minute, then on Omar Tetradze's goalmouth scramble shot five minutes later, the Russians had drawn even.


For the first time in Euro 96, the chain-smoking Romantsev lit up a cigarette, leaned back, crossed his ankles, and smiled.


And then, in the 85th minute, with the Czechs clutching desperately to a draw which would see them off to a quarterfinal encounter with flashy Portugal, Russian substitute Vladimir Beschastnykh blasted home a scorching 25-meter shot from the right side to put Russia ahead for the first time in the tournament.


Only one more goal could make this most unthinkable comeback complete.


And it came, but from the foot of the Czech's Vladimir Smicer, past goalie Stanislav Cherchesov and into Russia's net in the final, 90th minute of the game.