Rank out­siders to pro­vide low-key start

Pretoria News - - SPORT -

MOSCOW: Nobody would have hand picked the tour­na­ment’s two worst teams to launch the 2018 World Cup, but when Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia meet tomorrow, form will be ir­rel­e­vant as the world’s big­gest sport­ing fes­ti­val explodes into life in Moscow.

Hosts Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia are the two low­est-ranked teams at the tour­na­ment by some dis­tance and they are both in dire form. But their clash will set the tone for the global show­piece.

Partly due to a lack of com­pet­i­tive matches, Rus­sia have slipped to 70th in the Fifa rank­ings, which sounds shock­ingly low for a World Cup team un­til you glance up to see the Saudis, de­spite se­cur­ing au­to­matic qual­i­fi­ca­tion from a com­pet­i­tive Asian con­fed­er­a­tion, at 67th.

De­spite fail­ing to win in seven matches go­ing back to Oc­to­ber 2017, the hosts still have high hopes of mak­ing it to the sec­ond round for the first time in more than 30 years af­ter be­ing drawn in a group also con­tain­ing Egypt and Uruguay.

Rus­sia coach Stanislav Cherch­esov has been work­ing over­time try­ing to re­build his team, par­tic­u­larly de­fen­sively, af­ter a cruel run of se­ri­ous in­juries to some of his most ex­pe­ri­enced op­er­a­tors, but the tour­na­ment has ar­rived with­out him show­ing much ev­i­dence of progress.

His team last tasted suc­cess via a 4-2 vic­tory over South Korea - and even that win needed two own goals - and their most re­cent warm-ups brought de­feat by Aus­tria and a 1-1 draw with Tur­key.

But if they are go­ing to do it against any­one, it should be against a Saudi team com­ing off suc­ces­sive friendly losses to Italy, Peru and Ger­many, though they showed patches of en­cour­ag­ing form and did beat Al­ge­ria and Greece in May.

Their World Cup pedi­gree is dire, too. This is their first ap­pear­ance since 2006 and in their last three tour­na­ments they lost seven and drew two of their group games.

Rus­sia could not have hoped for a more gen­tle start, but Cherch­esov knows the play­ers and pub­lic need to dis­cover some con­fi­dence.

“I am not a ther­a­pist able to re­as­sure any­one,” he said af­ter the Tur­key draw. “We are mak­ing progress and our main task is to be­lieve in our­selves.” — Reuters

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