The Hitavada - - WORLD CUP -

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.

Igor Ak­in­feev, Rus­sia's most recog­nis­able player and first-choice goal­keeper for more than a decade, ad­mits his team­mates 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-yearold, 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.

Rus­sia have never made the knock­out stage of a World Cup as an in­de­pen­dent na­tion and are des­per­ate to make amends this sum­mer. Only South Africa, in 2010, have fallen at the group stage as hosts but poor form com­bined with a se­ries of in­juries have left Rus­sia in dis­ar­ray.

Zenit St Peters­burg striker Alexan­der Koko­rin was lost to a se­ri­ous knee in­jury in March, adding to the ab­sence of de­fend­ers Ge­orgi Dzhikiya and Vik­tor Vasin.

Krasnodar for­ward Fy­o­dor Smolov and Artem Dzyuba, loaned out to Arse­nal Tula in Jan­uary af­ter fall­ing out with ex-Zenit coach Roberto Mancini, will spear­head the at­tack, while for­mer Real Madrid winger De­nis Ch­ery­shev is back in the squad af­ter more than two years out.

Saudi Ara­bia are re­turn­ing to the global show­piece for the first time since 2006, prompt­ing the coun­try’s sports author­ity to strike a pact to send play­ers on loan to Spain to gain ex­pe­ri­ence at the top level.

Fa­had Al-Muwal­lad, whose goal against Ja­pan last Septem­ber clinched qual­i­fi­ca­tion, was one of nine play­ers in­volved in the agree­ment but it was de­rided as a “fi­asco”.

Muwal­lad, who was on loan at Le­vante, and winger Salem AlDawsari, at Vil­lar­real, only played for a few min­utes at the end of the sea­son.

At­tack­ing mid­fielder Yahia Al-Sheri, who went to Le­ganes, never played in a match. “From a sport­ing point of view, this is per­haps the big­gest fi­asco of the agree­ment, be­cause the par­tic­i­pa­tion of these nine play­ers has been prac­ti­cally neg­li­gi­ble,” for­mer Gi­jon pres­i­dent and Univer­sity of Oviedo foot­ball econ­o­mist Placido Ro­driguez told AFP.“Know­ing train­ing tech­niques or play­ing with Spa­niards, that is not why they come, clearly. They come for more than that, to con­trib­ute, to ex­pe­ri­ence another rhythm of play, and that is done by play­ing, not train­ing.”

Mo­hammed Al-Sahlawi, who had a three-week spell train­ing with Manch­ester United, bagged a stag­ger­ing 16 goals in qual­i­fy­ing, but the 31-year-old ar­rives at the fi­nals stuck in a nine-game scor­ing drought.


Rus­sian mid­fielder Roman Zob­nin (front) and goal­keeper Igor Ak­in­feev at­tend a train­ing ses­sion in Novo­gorsk out­side Moscow ahead of their opener against Saudi Ara­bia.

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