Moscow, June 12:
Host nation Russia are under enormous pressure to perform as they head into Thursday’s World Cup curtainraiser against Saudi Arabia in a contest between the two lowest-ranked nations in the tournament.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side will walk out onto the pitch at the 80,000-capacity Luzhniki stadium, the historic crucible of Russian sport, ranked a lowly 70th in the world, three spots below Group A rivals Saudi Arabia, and without a victory in eight months.
A 1-1 draw in Moscow with Turkey last week made former national team goalkeeper Cherchesov the first Russian or Soviet manager to go winless in seven consecutive games, four of those ending in defeat.
Russia has spent more than $13 billion on preparations for the big event, and President Vladimir Putin called on the team to pull themselves together as they look to progress from a section also featuring Uruguay and Egypt.
“As far as the team are concerned, I must acknowledge the fact that, unfortunately, our team have not achieved big results in recent times,” Putin said.
“But we very much expect — all fans and lovers of football in Russia — expect the team to play with dignity, for them to show modern, interesting football, and to fight until the end.”
Igor Akinfeev, Russia’s most recognisable player and first-choice goalkeeper for more than a decade, admits his team-mates must take the game to the opposition. (Agencies)