Host nation Russia are under enormous pressure to perform as they head into Thursday’s World Cup curtain-raiser against Saudi Arabia in a contest between the two lowest-ranked nations in the tournament.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side will walk out onto the pitch at the 80,000-capacity Luzhniki stadium, the historic crucible of Russian sport, ranked a lowly 70th in the world, three spots below Group A rivals Saudi Arabia, and without a victory in eight months.
A 1-1 draw in Moscow with Turkey last week made former national team goalkeeper Cherchesov the first Russian or Soviet manager to go winless in seven consecutive games, four of those ending in defeat.
Russia has spent more than $13 billion on preparations for the big event, and President Vladimir Putin called on the team to pull themselves together as they look to progress from a section also featuring Uruguay and Egypt.
“As far as the team are concerned, I must acknowledge the fact that, unfortunately, our team have not achieved big results in recent times,”.
“But we very much expect all fans and lovers of football in Russia expect the team to play with dignity, for them to show modern, interesting football, and to fight until the end.” Putin said
Igor Akinfeev, Russia’s most recognisable player and first-choice goalkeeper for more than a decade, admits his team-mates must take the game to the opposition.
“The team have to come out and play,” Akinfeev said after a 1-0 friendly loss to Austria last month in which Russia managed no shots on target. “If they do not, the score is not going to change.”
Akinfeev, the Russian captain, has played more games for club and country than Soviet goalkeeping legends Lev Yashin and Rinat Dasayev.
But the team’s reliance on the 32-year-old, who infamously went a staggering 43 Champions League matches without keeping a clean sheet over an 11-year span, speaks volumes about the home team’s chances.