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World Cup: Generous group provides hope for Russia
May 21, 2018 | 8:07 PM
by Reuters
Russia's coach Stanislav Cherchesov speaks to his players during a training session in Neustift, Austria on Monday. Photo - Reuters
 
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RUSSIA have badly under-performed since reaching the Euro 2008 semifinals and, with a squad lacking in quality and experience plus poor recent results, there is a real danger of an embarrassing early exit as World Cup hosts.

South Africa are the only host nation to have failed to get out of the group stage and Russia will have to put on their best display at a World Cup since the collapse of the Soviet Union if they are to avoid the same fate.

They fell at the first hurdle in 1994, 2002 and 2014 but their saving grace as they try to make it fourth time lucky is a generous draw alongside Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Egypt in Group A.

With Uruguay expected to top the group, it is paramount that the hosts get off to a winning a start against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki stadium on June 14, before facing Mohamed Salah's Egypt and finally the South Americans, led by powerful strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez.



Even if they can get out of their group, Russia are likely to face a daunting last-16 game against either European champions Portugal or a resurgent Spain, meaning their stay in the tournament is unlikely to be a long one.

Russia's preparations for their first World Cup as hosts have been far from ideal. They sacked coach Leonid Slutsky after finishing bottom of their group in Euro 2016, replacing him with former national team goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov.

Cherchesov got off to a rocky start, losing three of his first six games in charge, including a highly embarrassing 2-1 defeat by Qatar in November, 2016.

The team also had a disappointingly short stay in the Confederations Cup, coming third in their group behind Portugal and Mexico. Rumours swirled that Cherchesov's job was at risk but he clung on.

Shorn of competitive football due to qualifying as hosts, Russia have spent the last year playing friendlies against some of the leading sides in the world.

Russia enjoyed a 4-2 victory over South Korea in October but they have failed to win any of their five games since. They have put in respectable performances, though, battling back to draw 3-3 with Spain and losing 1-0 to Argentina.

Krasnodar striker Fyodor Smolov is their best hope of scoring the goals they will need to get out of the group while 22-year-old Lokomotiv Moscow playmaker Aleksei Miranchuk is their creative spark.

Goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow is their most experienced player, with 104 caps.

FACTBOX

FIFA ranking: 66 (till June 7)

Previous tournaments

Russia have played in three World Cups since 1994, failing to get out of the group stage every time, most recently in 2014.

The Soviet Union played in seven World Cups, their best performance coming in 1966 when they reached the semi-finals and losing 2-1 to West Germany. They made the quarter-finals in 1958, 1962 and 1970, losing to Sweden, Chile and Uruguay.

Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov

The former goalkeeper won four Russian league titles with Spartak Moscow and three league championships in Austria with FC Tirol Innsbruck in a long career which also included 39 caps for Russia and eight appearances for the Soviet Union.

He began coaching in Austria, later returning to manage a host of Russian sides including Spartak and Dynamo Moscow.

He led Polish side Legia Warsaw to a league and cup double in 2015-16 and was named Leonid Slutsky’s successor in charge of the Russian national team in 2016.

He clung on to his job despite suffering an early exit in the Confederations Cup by coming third in their group behind Portugal and Mexico.

Cherchesov has prioritised the team’s defence, assembling a new-look back three protected by five midfielders. He also has a reputation for making bold decisions, removing reliable defensive midfielder Igor Denisov from the team after falling out with him at Dynamo Moscow.

Key players

Fyodor Smolov: The charismatic striker was written off early in his career after a disappointing spell at Feyenoord and a long goal drought with Anzhi Makhachkala but has roared back with Krasnodar to finish as second top scorer in the Russian Premier League.

With 12 goals in 30 international games, he is his country’s best hope of getting out of the group.

Igor Akinfeev: A one-club man with CSKA Moscow, the goalkeeper has kept more clean sheets than anyone else in the history of Russia’s top flight.

The keeper has more than 100 caps since making his debut in 2004 although he has made costly errors, such as conceding soft goals against South Korea and Algeria in the last World Cup which led to Russia's early elimination.

Aleksei Miranchuk: The playmaker was one of the key men behind Lokomotiv Moscow winning their first league title in 14 years this season.

Twin brother of fellow Russia international Anton, he is Russia's most creative player, with a deft touch and a penchant for producing tricks.

Form guide

Russia's recent results do not make for positive reading: they have lost eight games out of 18 under Cherchesov, winning only five. Most of these matches were friendlies while they lost to Portugal and Mexico in the Confederations Cup and beat New Zealand.

A 4-2 victory over South Korea in October offered hope but they have failed to win in five games since. They battled back to draw 3-3 with Spain in November and were beaten 3-0 by Brazil and 3-1 by France in their most recent games.

How they qualified: as tournament hosts

Prospects

There is a serious danger Russia could join South Africa from 2010 in being the only World Cup tournament hosts to fail to get out of their group.

Cherchesov’s squad are young, inexperienced and mostly play in Russia's top flight, meaning the majority of their players have barely tested themselves against international opponents.

The one thing in their favour is a kind draw which placed them alongside Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Group A. The South Americans will be expected to top the group, meaning Russia are likely to be battling Egypt and Saudi Arabia for second spot and a place in the last 16. - Reuters

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