FIFA World Cup 2018: Pressure on hosts Russia in opener against Saudi Arabia

Russia go into FIFA World Cup 2018 opener on a seven-game winless streak and lowest of all 32 teams in the FIFA rankings. Saudi Arabia hasn’t won a World Cup game since 1994.

football Updated: Jun 14, 2018 15:39 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, Moscow
FIFA World Cup 2018,Russia vs Saudi Arabia,Russia
Russia will face Saudi Arabia in the first match of the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Moscow on Thursday.(AFP)

It has been a bit of a rough ride for Russia in their preparations for the FIFA World Cup 2018. Of their 15 international fixtures in 2017 and 2018, Russia have won just three.

Being the lowest ranked team in the competition --- Russia are 70 --- and carrying huge expectations as the host nation, it is, therefore, not difficult to gauge the kind of pressure head coach Stanislav Cherchesov faces.

But at the pre-match press conference on the eve of the World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia, the 54-year-old tactician seemed the polar opposite of a man under pressure.

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“Oh, you are James Bond?” he said, in response to a journalist introducing himself as James Dodd.

Cherchesov then exchanged a few puns with local Russian journalists. So how were his players’ preparations a day before the World Cup starts? Cherchesov went on to explain that his players had been playing ‘Trivial Pursuit’, a board game, to let off steam ahead of Thursday’s opening clash.

‘Weakest team in many decades’

A string of retirements in defence in 2016 and the team’s subsequent struggles forced Cherchesov to convince 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich to make a comeback.

Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, another veteran, has been at the core of the national team for over a decade but has had two serious leg injuries in recent years.

The fact that both veterans face little or no berth pangs is indicative of the country’s fall in standing in recent years.

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“This is the weakest Russian team in many decades. Even leaving the group will be considered a great success but it will be extremely difficult to do so,” said Andrei Malosolov, ex-spokesperson of the Russian FA.

This World Cup’s opener will be exactly 10 years to the day when a 1-0 win over Greece kick-started a run to the semi-final of Euro 2008.

“In 2008, Russia had a whole galaxy of talented and young players. Most of them have now either retired or grown too old to still be in reckoning for national duty,” said Malosolov.

While getting past the group stages will be anything but easy given the presence of Egypt and Uruguay, Russia will have to beat Saudi Arabia, the weakest team on paper in the group, to have a fair shot of reaching the last-16.

Alan Dzagoev and Denis Cheryshev will be the two major creative outlets for the team and Cherchesov will be looking to offer the duo a bit more freedom going forward. With Alexander Kokorin missing out due to injury, forward Fyodor Smolov will carry the onus of scoring goals for his side.

Some pizzazz from Pizzi?

Saudi Arabia head into the tournament with very little expectations, something they hope will work to their advantage.

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Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi had led Chile to the 2016 Copa America title with a gung-ho approach that has been characteristic of his managerial career.

Pizzi will find it difficult to replicate such a system but given Russia’s usually conservative approach, this is likely to be the only game where the Saudis will see a bit more of the ball.

Like Russia, Saudi Arabia are among the oldest sides at this World Cup. There have been question marks over Osama Hawsawi’s ability to lead the defence at 34.

With the likes of Yahya al-Shehri, Salem al-Dawsari and Abdullah al-Khaibari, Saudi Arabia, however, have players in the middle who can help create a few problems for Russia and prevent the hosts from controlling the game’s tempo. In front, Mohamamd al-Sahlawi and Fahad al-Muwallad should provide a few headaches to the Russian backline.

First Published: Jun 13, 2018 19:42 IST