Russia

World Cup

World Cup preview: Russia

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews the host nation's chances of success at their own tournament.

The gaze of the world will be on Russia this summer when they host the 21st World Cup, and as a nation they have plenty of questions to answer if it is to become a successful tournament.

The selection of Russia as the host country was itself shrouded in controversy with allegations of bribery and corruption marring their successful bid, while concerns over fan safety following violence at Euro 2016 and the tense political landscape of the country means that the focus will be as much on off-field matters as those on the pitch.

For manager Stanislav Cherchesov and his team, though, the focus must solely be on first progressing from the group stages and then seeing how far their home advantage can take them in a tournament filled with nations who are much more fancied.

In the past 20 years, four of the six host nations have made it all the way to the semi-final at least, so there is precedent for the argument that hosting the tournament certainly aids a team's chances.

Here, Sports Mole looks at whether Russia could be the latest to benefit from that.


GROUP

As hosts, Russia were guaranteed a top seeding in Group A, but the draw has thrown up an intriguing quartet of teams who will all fancy their chances of taking one of the top two spots.

Uruguay will go into the tournament as favourites to claim top spot, but also in the mix are a Saudi Arabian side that beat Australia to an automatic qualifying place and a Egyptian team boasting a certain Mohamed Salah amongst their ranks.

On paper, Russia's easiest game should come first - against a Saudi Arabian team appearing in their first World Cup since 2006 - but the subsequent contests against Egypt and then Uruguay will likely prove to be the decisive ones.

RUSSIA FIXTURES

June 14: Russia vs. Saudi Arabia (4pm, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow)
June 19: Russia vs. Egypt (7pm, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg)
June 25: Uruguay vs. Russia (3pm, Cosmos Arena, Samara)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Russia qualified automatically as hosts of the tournament. Their opening match against Saudi Arabia will be their first competitive outing since the Confederations Cup almost a year previously.


RECENT FORM

The hosts have not exactly had an ideal warm-up to the tournament, and they will go into their opening match against Saudi Arabia without a win since October.

In fairness to Russia, they have faced some tough opposition in that spell; four of the games during their current seven-match winless streak have come against Argentina, Spain, Brazil and France, all of whom are among the favourites to lift the trophy in Moscow this summer.

However, it will be the other games which are of most concern, particularly their two warm-up games against teams who failed to even qualify for this summer's tournament.

A deserved 1-0 loss to Austria on May 30 was followed by a 1-1 draw against Turkey on home soil which will not have done much to increase the optimism amongst home fans of causing a few upsets in this summer's tournament.

The brightest light from the past seven months or so came with a 3-3 draw against Spain in November in which they twice came from behind, but considering they also failed to qualify from their Confederations Cup group 12 months ago, the recent form is not exactly in the host nation's favour.


SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge), Andrey Lunev (Zenit St Petersburg).

Defenders: Vladimir Granat, Fedor Kudryashov (both Rubin Kazan), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Andrey Semenov (Akhmat Grozny), Sergei Ignashevich, Mario Fernandes (both CSKA Moscow), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St Petersburg).

Midfielders: Yuri Gazinskiy (Krasnodar), Alexsandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev (both CSKA Moscow), Aleksandr Erokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Daler Kuzyaev (all Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Zobnin, Alexsandr Samedov (both Spartak Moscow), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal).

Forwards: Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula), Aleksey Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Fydor Smolov (Krasnodar).


STAR PLAYER - Alan Dzagoev

Russia boast experience galore in the form of centurions Sergei Ignashevich and Igor Akinfeev, but the key to their success this summer may well lie with Alan Dzagoev.

The 27-year-old is no stranger to international football himself with 57 caps to his name, but a player of his talent may well be disappointed to only have nine goals from those games - a tally he is sure to want to improve in front of his home fans this summer.

Dzagoev's desire to shine will only be increased by the fact that he missed both Euro 2016 and last year's Confederations Cup through injury, and while he did feature for his country at Euro 2012 and the most recent World Cup, this will be the first tournament which he enters with the bulk of the responsibility on his shoulders.

Others will help share that burden - Artem Dzyuba has a very respectable goalscoring record at international level, while Fyodor Smolov is the top scorer in the squad - but in a team expected to play defensively for the most part, Dzagoev should provide some rare attacking flair for the hosts.


MANAGER - Stanislav Cherchesov

In charge since August 2016, Cherchesov became Russia's third manager in a little over a year when he was appointed as Leonid Slutsky's successor following their group-stage exit from Euro 2016.

The highlights of Cherchesov's managerial career prior to this summer's World Cup came at Legia Warsaw, where he won the league and cup double in 2015-16.

The 54-year-old has also spent time in charge of both Spartak Moscow and Dynamo Moscow, but he has never spent longer than two years in any of his previous managerial roles.

As a player Cherchesov was a goalkeeper who spanned the eras of USSR and Russia, being selected in the squads for the 1994 and 2002 World Cups during his 39-cap international career.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Fourth (1966)

Russia's best moments in the World Cup came in the days of the Soviet Union when they reached the semi-finals in 1966, only to lose to West Germany and then be beaten by Eusebio's Portugal in the third-place playoff at Wembley.

That was one of four consecutive tournaments in which they reached at least the quarter-finals, but they have not made it to that stage since 1970 and have never made it past the groups since the dissolution of the USSR.

Russia have only been at three World Cups since 1990 - missing out in 1998, 2006 and 2010 - and their performance in Brazil four years ago was their worst ever, failing to win any of their games as they finished third in Group H behind Belgium and Algeria.


PREDICTION

Home support can so often play a major role at the World Cup, but it may not be enough for Russia this summer. The form book, the quality of opposition and their poor recent World Cup record all suggest an early exit for the host nation.

VERDICT: Third in Group A

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