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Russia host FIFA World Cup in abject form

Updated June 12, 2018

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MOSCOW: Russia go into their home World Cup with expectations at rock bottom. They are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, according to FIFA, but have a comparatively easy group.

When Russia won the right to host the World Cup eight years ago, the team glowed with potential after reaching the semi-finals at the 2008 European Cham­pion­ship. They go to the World Cup on a seven-game winless run.

Despite having the largest population in Europe and a rich football history, Russia remain a sleeping giant. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov is taking the blame for poor results.

“I’m no psychologist, to go around calming people down,” he said after another disappointing 1-1 friendly draw with Turkey. Instead the fans’ job “is to believe in us.”

Russia’s best chance of a first World Cup win since 2002 is in the opening game June 14 against Saudi Arabia; the second-lowest ranked team at the tournament. Mohamed Salah’s shoulder injury could help Russia’s chances in the second Group ‘A’ game with Egypt, before Uruguay present a tough test.

Even if Russia get out of the group, Spain or Portugal are likely second-round opponents.

There will be plenty of attention on Russia off the pitch. At the 2016 European Championship, Russia were better known for their marauding hooligans than their defense-first approach in games, while the team has been embroiled in Russia’s doping scandals.

Defender Ruslan Kambolov was investigated by FIFA earlier this year over allegations he may have benefited from Russian doping cover-ups. Kambolov’s lawyers say the investigation was closed for lack of evidence, but FIFA didn’t confirm that.

Kambolov was originally included in Russia’s preliminary squad but then dropped citing injury.

The Russian doping whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov has said he suspects one unnamed player from the Russia squad of breaking anti-doping rules, but didn’t specify if that player was in the final squad of 23 or earlier, larger squad lists.

Cherchesov has tried to refresh a team that was one of the oldest at Euro 2016. The former international goalkeeper made younger midfielders such as Roman Zobnin and Aleksandr Golovin into key members of the team, but he’s yet to be rewarded with wins.

Injuries have put his preference for three central defenders under strain, so he switched to a four-man back line for the 1-0 friendly defeat to Austria on May 30.

Russia captain Igor Akinfeev shot to fame as the 22-year-old goalkeeper who pulled off stunning saves on the team’s way to the semi-finals at Euro 2008.

Predictions of a big-money transfer never materialised and he spent his entire career at CSKA Moscow. He has a tendency to make errors in high-profile games, including an embarrassing fumble which let South Korea score at the 2014 World Cup.

Injuries have hit Russia’s back line hard, with central defenders Viktor Vasin and Georgy Dzhikiya both sustaining severe knee injuries.

Replacements like Ilya Kutepov and Vladimir Granat have struggled to settle and each made notable errors in recent friendlies.

Former Chelsea wingback Yuri Zhirkov could start on the left, with Brazil-born Mario Fernandes a contender for a spot on the right.

Zobnin and Golovin are Russia’s main emerging talents. Golovin, a creative spark for CSKA Moscow, seemed overawed at Euro 2016 but now has more experience and was energetic in a 1-1 friendly draw with Turkey on June 5.

Cherchesov hasn’t picked a dedicated defensive midfielder, which has often forced Zobnin to play deeper than he’d like. Playmaker Alan Dzagoev, once considered one of Europe’s brightest young talents but now 27, could finally make a meaningful impact at international level.

Russia’s attacking options were badly dented when Alexander Kokorin was ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury. Fyodor Smolov, the Russian league’s top scorer for the last three seasons, is the clear leading choice, while Artyom Dzyuba is the main backup. Twins Alexei and Anton Miranchuk can work well as second strikers or on the wing.

The hosts open the tournament against Saudi Arabia on June 14 in Moscow, near their training base. Russia, who reached the quarter-finals in 1958, 1962 and 1970 as the Soviet Union, then face Egypt on June 19 and Uruguay on June 25.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2018