Opener vital for Russia

Coach urges host team to ignore critics, concentrate on positives

Russia's Igor Akinfeev during the World Cup host team’s training session at Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
Russia's Igor Akinfeev during the World Cup host team’s training session at Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
Image: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS

Russia must ignore media criticism ahead of today’s World Cup kick-off against Saudi Arabia and focus on winning, coach Stanislav Cherchesov told his team.

The host nation enter their first home World Cup in the worst possible form.

They have beaten both Russian and Soviet records by going winless in seven matches and slumping to 70th in the world, the lowest of the 32 teams in the tournament.

Newspaper headlines are asking if things can possibly get any worse.

“We have to take all the criticism and turn it into something positive,” Cherchesov said after the team’s final practice at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

The imposing 80 000-seat arena has been rebuilt from the days it hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics and will be the venue of both today’s tournament kick-off and the July 15 final.

President Vladimir Putin has already said he expects to see much better from Russia when he arrives in Luzhniki for the opening ceremony.

“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 last week.

Russia’s last two World Cup warmups saw them manage just one shot on target in a 1-0 loss to Austria and 1-1 draw with Turkey.

The team have not tasted victory in eight months.

But Cherchesov promised that everything would look different should Russia manage to beat Saudi Arabia.

“The first game will be the most important one because it will leave its stamp on the entire campaign,” the 54-year-old former national team goalkeeper said.

“Every player knows that he represents his country and will give everything he has for the win.”

Russia play their second match against Egypt on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg and finish off Group A play against two-time World Cup champions Uruguay in Samara on June 25.

Qualification for the knockout stage would probably mean a last-16 matchup against either European champions Portugal or former World Cup winners Spain.

Various Russian officials have already said that Cherchesov’s failure to lead Russia out of one of the most straightforward groups in the draw would be a national sporting disaster.

Yet Russia also crashed out of a 2014 World Cup group in which they were one of the favourites.

Cherchesov made no promises but said his charges were intent on making the nation proud.

“Our goal is to make people excited by our play, and everything will go right after that,” he said.

Meanwhile, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said Saudi Arabia would play without fear today when they look to become the first team to inflict defeat on a host nation in the opening match of a World Cup.

Warm-up losses to Italy, Germany and Peru have not made for the best preparations for the Saudis as they chase a first victory in the World Cup finals since 1994 in their first appearance in the showpiece since 2006.

The tournament hosts have had an even less auspicious build-up, however, and Pizzi said they would be looking to take the game to the Russians in the Group A match at the Luzhniki Stadium.

“We are ready, we are not afraid,” the Argentine told a news conference.

“We are planning on being the protagonists. Our goal is to beat Russia.”

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