World Cup 2018 hosts Russia need a miracle to get out of the groups
MOSCOW -- It says something about the Russia squad that their coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, might turn out to be the host nation's star of the tournament at this World Cup.
The 54-year-old former goalkeeper, who won 49 caps for his country and represented the Russians at two World Cups and two European Championships, does not lack confidence or charisma -- two crucial qualities which his team have yet to develop ahead of Thursday's Group A opener against Saudi Arabia in Moscow.
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Cherchesov will emerge from Russia 2018 with his colourful reputation enhanced by whatever comments he makes in the media, but if he can somehow inspire his squad to deliver the kind of performance that will satisfy a sceptical nation he will be hailed as a miracle worker.
Russia go into their own tournament as the lowest-ranked team in the competition, having dropped to 70th position in this month's FIFA rankings -- three places below the Saudis.
They are without a win in in their last seven outings -- a run including games against Iran, Austria and Turkey -- and face a battle to escape the weakest group in the competition, which also includes Uruguay and Egypt.
But, ever the optimist, Cherchesov remains full of belief and expectation.
"We need to be a really strong host," he told German magazine kicker. "We can't face Germany until the semifinals or finals. If we get that far, I'll be the happiest man in the world."
There is a view in Russia that, having fought so hard to host the tournament in the first place, President Vladimir Putin will now steer clear of attaching himself too closely to Cherchesov's team in order to avoid being associated with the inevitable failure that will follow.
The only debate within the host nation is when, rather than if, Russia will be eliminated.
In terms of good news, they cannot become the first hosts to be knocked out in the group stage thanks to South Africa earning that unenviable distinction in 2010, but there is a genuine concern that Russia's World Cup could be over as early as June 19 if they fail to make a winning start against the Saudis and then lose against Egypt in Saint Petersburg.
So much for Russia being sleepless in anticipation for this World Cup; it is more a case of a fearful nation hiding behind the sofa, waiting for the worst to happen. But Cherchesov is hopeful that a soft group can provide the springboard for some kind of success.
"A football World Cup is like a weightlifting competition," he said. "You don't start with the heaviest bar. First of all, you have to make sure you stay in the tournament. We know we are not the favourites. We want to be ourselves and see whether that will be enough, how far that takes us."
Like any coach, Cherchesov is only as good as his players and the pool of talent in Russia right now is arguably as shallow as it has ever been.
Seven of his squad are already past their 30th birthday, there are also three 29-year-olds and a recall for the 38-year-old centre-back Sergei Ignashevich after cruciate ligament injuries ruled out Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya. Rubin Kazan defender Ruslan Kambolov also misses out due to injury.
An unsuccessful attempt to recall the 35-year-old Berezutski twins -- Vasili and Aleksei -- only served to highlight Cherchesov's lack of options at the back.
The defensive problems are so severe that Cherchesov switched to a back four for Russia's final two warm-up games, having spent almost two years playing with a 3-4-3 formation.
The loss of Zenit St Petersburg striker Aleksandr Kokorin to injury -- knee ligaments again -- is another blow to Cherchesov, but the coach has also stubbornly refused to end a long-standing rift with Igor Denisov, who has been left out of the squad despite the midfielder captaining Lokomotiv Moscow to their first title in 14 years this season.
Cherchesov and Denisov fell out while working together at Dynamo Moscow four years ago and, despite the desperate need for quality in the Russia squad, the 34-year-old has been overlooked.
Last summer's Confederations Cup will at least have been an early warning of what may lie ahead at the World Cup, with Russia only able to defeat New Zealand before being eliminated at the group stage by Portugal and Mexico.
But another group stage exit will signal humiliation for a proud nation, on and off the pitch.
There are some reasons for optimism -- Fedor Smolov is a proven goal scorer, with Aleksandr Golovin capable of shining in midfield. The 22-year-old Miranchuk twins -- Aleksey and Anton -- have helped Lokomotiv to the title this season and could step up to the plate alongside Golovin.
But Cherchesov will know that simply emerging from Group A will be a success for this group of players.
Such an achievement will also save face for Russia. But with Spain or Portugal likely to lie in wait in the second round, it is tough to envisage anything beyond the round of 16 for Cherchesov and his team.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_