By Richard Martin
(Reuters) – Russia have badly under-performed since reaching the Euro 2008 semi-finals and, with a squad lacking in quality and experience plus poor recent results, there is a real danger of an embarrassing early exit as World Cup hosts.
South Africa are the only host nation to have failed to get out of the group stage and Russia will have to put on their best display at a World Cup since the collapse of the Soviet Union if they are to avoid the same fate.
They fell at the first hurdle in 1994, 2002 and 2014 but their saving grace as they try to make it fourth time lucky is a generous draw alongside Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Egypt in Group A.
With Uruguay expected to top the group, it is paramount that the hosts get off to a winning a start against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki stadium on June 14, before facing Mohamed Salah’s Egypt and finally the South Americans, led by powerful strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez.
Even if they can get out of their group, Russia are likely to face a daunting last-16 game against either European champions Portugal or a resurgent Spain, meaning their stay in the tournament is unlikely to be a long one.
Russia’s preparations for their first World Cup as hosts have been far from ideal. They sacked coach Leonid Slutsky after finishing bottom of their group in Euro 2016, replacing him with former national team goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov.
Cherchesov got off to a rocky start, losing three of his first six games in charge, including a highly embarrassing 2-1 defeat by Qatar in November, 2016.
The team also had a disappointingly short stay in the Confederations Cup, coming third in their group behind Portugal and Mexico. Rumours swirled that Cherchesov’s job was at risk but he clung on.
Shorn of competitive football due to qualifying as hosts, Russia have spent the last year playing friendlies against some of the leading sides in the world.
Russia enjoyed a 4-2 victory over South Korea in October but they have failed to win any of their five games since. They have put in respectable performances, though, battling back to draw 3-3 with Spain and losing 1-0 to Argentina.
Krasnodar striker Fyodor Smolov is their best hope of scoring the goals they will need to get out of the group while 22-year-old Lokomotiv Moscow playmaker Aleksei Miranchuk is their creative spark.
Goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow is their most experienced player, with 104 caps.
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond)