MOSCOW: Deep in the bowels of the cavernous Luzhniki Stadium, drowned out by distorted feedback, Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov suggested that such is the pressurized atmosphere ahead of today’s World Cup opening match, even his microphone could not withstand it.
Russia arrive at their own tournament as the lowest-ranked side of the 32 teams and without a win in nine international matches. Having qualified as hosts, their last victory came in October against South Korea and they have since lost to Argentina, Brazil, France and Austria while drawing with Iran, Spain and, most recently, Turkey.
Today, against Saudi Arabia in Moscow, they are aiming to avoid becoming the first host nation to lose a tournament curtain-raiser. And if Cherchesov, who has been at the helm for two years, was not already aware of the expectations upon his side, Russian president Vladimir Putin earlier this week made it quite clear.
Yet while scathing criticism from local press has forced some Russian players to close their social media accounts and former players — including former Manchester United winger Andrei Kanchelskis — have described the team as one of the worst ever, Cherchesov cut a jovial figure 24 hours before the big kick-off.
“Our mood is very good. We are ready for work. We did a lot of work back in Austria and have reached a good level. Against Turkey, we showed the kind of game we want to play,” the 54-year-old said.
“Every coach has to accept criticism. I don’t read anything and stay focused on my job. We are trying to do what we’re doing — the fact we are getting criticised, that’s a natural thing in the world we live in today. We want to do everything we can to turn criticism into positive feedback and we have everything we need to do that.”
Cherchesov revealed his team have been trying to relax by playing Trivial Pursuit, but the most pressing question is whether they are capable of beating a Saudi Arabia team appearing at a world finals for the first time since 2006. Aleksandr Samedov, the team’s veteran right-back, said he and his teammates watched the Green Falcons’ most recent
defeats to Italy and Germany and are well-prepared. Now all he hopes is his compatriots show more support.
“(Saudi Arabia) are a very technically-minded team,” said Samedov, who spent Tuesday analyzing the Saudi
attack and planned last night to do similar with the opponents’ defence.
“They like to hold the ball and our objective is not to let them keep it, which is what we will try to do. We would all love it if there could be a bit more positive spirit around our team, but we have to contribute and generate this positivity, which would then emanate through the press. We will try to demonstrate this at the World Cup.”
Cherchesov confirmed that he has a full squad to choose from with
players carrying minor injuries
having managed to recover, adding that he believed his team had “improved considerably” since last year’s
Confederations Cup, where they won their opening match 2-0 against New Zealand but lost to Portugal and Mexico to crash out at the group stage.