Football: Saudi Arabia will be Russia's acid test in World Cup opener

Achilles the cat, who lives in St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, choosing Russia to win the opening match of the World Cup, having previously predicted outcomes during the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Achilles the cat, who lives in St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, choosing Russia to win the opening match of the World Cup, having previously predicted outcomes during the 2017 Confederations Cup.PHOTO: REUTERS

Host keen to end run of seven winless games as coach exudes confidence before opener

GROUP A

Russia v Saudi Arabia
Singtel TV Ch141, StarHub Ch222 & Mediacorp okto, 11pm

The Russian fans dare not contemplate the worst-case scenario. The host are the worst-ranked team set to feature in arguably the worst opener in World Cup history after the worst build-up.

But ahead of today's curtain-raiser between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium, there is only room for optimism.

Artem Senchenko, a 23-year-old bartender at Pivbar who used to train with CSKA Moscow as a striker from the age of six until he was 13, told The Straits Times: "Recent results have not been good but we want Russia to do well and with talented players like Aleksandr Golovin and Fyodor Smolov, we believe the Sbornaya will at least beat Saudi Arabia 2-0."

Such a result would end Russia's wretched run of seven games without a win - the worst among all 32 teams going into the tournament.

In Group A, which also comprises two-time champions Uruguay and African hopefuls Egypt, the world No. 70 Sbornaya - "the team" in Russian - have to capitalise on a meeting against a side ranked just three rungs above them.

World Cup hosts have never lost their openers in 20 previous editions, and Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov would gladly accept a repeat of the 6-1 win in his only World Cup appearance when he kept goal for his country against Cameroon in 1994.

The thought of Russia becoming the second hosts to fail to make the knockout stages after South Africa in 2010 is unimaginable.

Even if former Russia midfielder Andrei Kanchelskis labelled the class of 2018 "the worst Russian team I have seen in my life". Even if they do not boast talents like former European Footballer of the Year winners Lev Yashin (1963), Oleg Blokhim (1975) and Igor Belanov (1986), who represented the Soviet Union.

Seifylla Azizov, 24, said: "I don't know how long the excitement among the Russians will last if we are eliminated (at the group stage).

FULL OF OPTIMISM

(Saudi Arabia) are a skilful team, who love to play. Our goal is to deprive them of the ball... We want our team to be surrounded with more positive vibes. But it's us who need to create this positivity.

ALEKSANDR SAMEDOV, Russia midfielder.

"The team and the players know this and I'm confident they will step up and beat Saudi Arabia by two or three and hopefully inspire the next generation."

Some Russians have even grown their facial hair - akin to Cherchesov - as part of a "Mustache Of Hope" campaign launched by local television personality Ivan Urgant.

Of the 144 million population, the most significant rallying cry came from Russia President Vladimir Putin.

"Our team have not achieved big results in recent times," he conceded. "But we very much expect - all fans and lovers of football in Russia - the team to play with dignity, for them to show modern, interesting football, and to fight until the end."

Cherchesov, without two of his starting central defenders in Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya, has to decide whether to use three or four at the back after recalling 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich.

Alan Dzagoev should anchor the midfield with Golovin and Roman Zobnin, as versatile 22-year-old twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk are the wildcards in midfield or attack. Up front, Russia will hope Smolov or Artem Dzyuba can find their scoring boots.

PRIMED AND READY

They know what to expect in Russia and know what we expect of them, so we are ready to perform to our best abilities.

JUAN ANTONIO PIZZI, Saudi Arabia coach, on his players.

Despite their pre-tournament woes, the coach was in a cheerful mood at the pre-match press conference at the Luzhniki Stadium yesterday. He had his audience in stitches when he invited everyone with moustaches like him to support Russia.

When asked why he thinks Russia will win, he replied confidently: "Because we want to."

Besides willpower, there is also the matter of who his side are facing today. Saudi Arabia - the second-lowest ranked team - have had a comparably tumultuous build-up to the tournament and are without a win in eight months.

Since qualifying, they have parted ways with two managers, Bert van Marwijk and Edgardo Bauza, before appointing Juan Antonio Pizzi.

The project to send key midfielders Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yahya Al-Shehri on loan to Spanish LaLiga clubs in January also backfired as they lacked the quality to break into their respective teams and clocked just 58 minutes of playing time.

But regardless of Saudi Arabia's woes, Russia know that they cannot be their own worst enemy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2018, with the headline 'Saudis will be Russia's acid test'. Print Edition | Subscribe