Rus­sia hopes rather than ex­pects ahead of opener

Daily News - - SPORT - BARRY WHE­LAN

THERE is more hope than ex­pec­ta­tion in the air as the two low­est-ranked teams at the World Cup get the tour­na­ment un­der way when hosts Rus­sia play Saudi Ara­bia in Moscow’s Luzh­niki Sta­dium to­day.

The tour­na­ment prom­ises to open with a whim­per rather than a bang – 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.

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, host coun­try Rus­sia will be keen to avoid that fate in a match ex­pected to be watched by Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the sta­dium that will also host the fi­nal match on July 15.

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 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,” Putin added.

Un­der coach Stanislav 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 goal­keeper Cherch­esov, who took the job af- ter 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 said re­cently.

“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 are 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 more than a month later he took over the Saudi team af­ter the dis­missal of fel­low Ar­gen­tinian Edgardo Bauza.

Saudi winger Yahia Al-Shehri, on loan at Span­ish side Le­ganes, spoke for many of his team­mates at train­ing in St Peters­burg when he spoke of the thrill of be­ing at the World Cup.

“The team is proud to be in the big­gest foot­ball event and to be among the best in the world,” he said.

Saudi Ara­bia’s re­sults in pre-tour­na­ment friendlies have not been that en­cour­ag­ing, al­though they came close to a draw with world cham­pi­ons Ger­many in a 2-1 de­feat on Fri­day.

How­ever, Al- Shehri says “friendly con­fronta­tions are not a real mea­sure”, and the team is con­fi­dent of a good re­sult to act as a cat­a­lyst for the tour­na­ment.

Cap­tain Osama Haw­sawi said: “We fear noth­ing be­cause we are not re­quired to se­cure the ti­tle.

“We will play with great com­fort to present stan­dards hon­our­ing our coun­try,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view.


HOME GROUND AD­VAN­TAGE: The Rus­sian na­tional team trains at the Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow yes­ter­day, ahead of to­day’s World Cup open­ing match against Saudi Ara­bia.

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