South Africa is the only host nation to have failed to get out of the group stage and Russia will have to put on its best display at a World Cup since the collapse of the Soviet Union if it is to avoid the same fate. It fell at the first hurdle in 1994, 2002 and 2014 but its saving grace as it tries 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 host 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 it can get out of its group, Russia is likely to face a daunting last-16 game against either European champion Portugal or a resurgent Spain, meaning its stay in the tournament is unlikely to be a long one.
Russia’s preparations for its first World Cup as hosts have been far from ideal. It sacked coach Leonid Slutsky after finishing bottom of its 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.
Fyodor Smolov is its best hope of scoring the goals it will need to get out of the group while Aleksei Miranchuk is its creative spark.
Goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev is its most experienced player, with 104 caps.
Country pins goal hopes on comeback kid Smolov
Russia striker Fyodor Smolov has undergone a dramatic career turnaround from laughing stock to national icon and his under-performing nation will look to him to fire it out of World Cup Group A and avoid an embarrassing early exit as host.
Smolov looked like he would never fulfil his early promise after a measly return of five league goals in his first seven years as a professional and he hit a low when he was relegated with Anzhi Makhachkala in 2014. The heavily-tattooed player was left out of the 2014 World Cup squad by Fabio Capello and was criticised for having a celebrity lifestyle due to his relationship with television presenter Victoria Lopyreva.
He got his mojo back in a stint on the edge of Siberia at Ural, becoming a hero for helping to save the club from relegation. His exploits earned him a move to Krasnodar, where he developed into a clinical and prolific striker. Fans admire the 28-year-old Smolov’s passion for the national team, which was on display as he cried on the pitch following the host’s exit from the Confederations Cup after it lost to Mexico.
FIFA ranking: 70 (as of June 7)
PREVIOUS TOURNAMENTS: Russia has played in three World Cups since 1994, failing to get out of the group stage every time, most recently in 2014. The Soviet Union played in seven World Cups, its best performance coming in 1966 when it reached the semi-finals and losing 2-1 to West Germany. It made the quarter-finals in 1958, 1962 and 1970, losing to Sweden, Chile and Uruguay.
FORM GUIDE: Russia’s recent results do not make for positive reading: it has been winless in its last seven games. Most of these matches were friendlies while it also lost to Portugal and Mexico in the Confederations Cup and beat New Zealand last year.
PROSPECTS: There is a serious danger Russia could join South Africa from 2010 in being the only World Cup tournament host to fail to get out of its group.
Cherchesov’s squad is young, inexperienced and mostly play in Russia’s top flight, meaning the majority of its players have barely tested themselves against international opponents. The one thing in its favour is a kind draw which placed it alongside Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Group A.