Liv­ing on a prayer

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SUNBIZ -

Rus­sia hopes rather than ex­pects a mir­a­cle ahead of opener against Saudi Ara­bia to­day

THE World Cup fi­nally kicks off to­day with a whim­per rather than a bang when hosts Rus­sia play Saudi Ara­bia – at least if you go by FIFA rankings. The Group A game in Moscow’s Luzh­niki Sta­dium sees the two low­est-ranked sides in the 32-team tour­na­ment up against each other. Rus­sia are the low­est rated at 70th, while Saudi Ara­bia are not much bet­ter at 67th – hardly a meet­ing to set the pulses rac­ing for neu­trals. Of course, rankings are no pa­ram­e­ter and big names are no guar­an­tee of thrills. Nerves have of­ten got the bet­ter of teams in open­ing matches, and when World Cup hold­ers had the hon­our of play­ing the first games there have been up­sets – the last in 2002 when France were beaten 1-0 by Sene­gal. Since then it has been a job for the hosts, and so far none have lost their opener. For the sake of the mood in the tour­na­ment ho s t coun­try, Rus­sia will be keen to avoid that fate in a match ex­pected to be watched by Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the sta­dium which will also host the July 15 fi­nal.

Putin him­self has high hopes the team can lift fans with some good show­ings, al­though he ac­cepts the signs have not given much cause for op­ti­mism.

“As re­gards the na­tional team, I have to ac­knowl­edge that, sadly, our team has not en­joyed great re­sults lately,” he said in an in­ter­view last week.

“But we, all the fans and foot­ball lovers in Rus­sia, have high hopes that our team will make a good show­ing, play a modern, interesting and beau­ti­ful style of foot­ball, and fight to the fin­ish.”

Unde r c o a c h S t a n i s l a v Cherch­esov, the home team will be hop­ing to avoid the fate of 2010 hosts South Africa in fail­ing to reach the last 16 in a group which sees Egypt play Uruguay in Yeka­ter­in­burg to­mor­row.

For­mer keeper Cherch­esov, who took the job af­ter Rus­sia’s exit with­out a win at Euro 2016, has had a tough task in mak­ing the hosts a con­tender af­ter his team also failed to im­press at last year’s Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup.

How­ever, there have been signs of im­prove­ment, with fans also ral­ly­ing around the squad in the run up to the World Cup de­spite a lack of re­cent vic­to­ries.

“We have a more pos­i­tive image than we used to have,” Cherch­esov told dpa in a re­cent in­ter­view.

“We be­came a team. We worked on our men­tal­ity, and now we can re­ally step on the gas.”

The Saudis are mean­while back at their fifth World Cup, hav­ing missed the last two edi­tions, and con­fi­dent of a good show­ing, led by for­mer Chile coach Juan An­to­nio Pizzi.

Pizzi was in Rus­sia with Chile at last year’s Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup but stepped down in Oc­to­ber af­ter fail­ing to get the Copa Amer­ica cham­pi­ons to the World Cup.

Just over a month later he took over the Saudi team af­ter the dis­missal of fel­low Ar­gen­tinian Edgardo Bauza. – dpa

Juan An­to­nio Pizzi.

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