Russia hopes rather than expects ahead of opener
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.