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With qualification for the World Cup all but complete, many will ponder on which national side will be lifting the historic trophy come July.
With the likes of Brazil, Germany, Spain and France amongst the favourites, another team is under the spotlight usual. Russia are participating as the host of the 2018 edition (albeit from suspicious circumstances).
The national team are under immense pressure as they have struggled to perform in recent tournaments and also put in a poor showing in the confederations cup. With South Africa the only host ever to fail to reach the knockout stages, the question here is, how will Russia perform as hosts at the World Cup?
This will be Russia’s eleventh time at the World Cup.
Their best showing was finishing fourth in 1966 (playing under as the Soviet Union), when the reds were regarded as a powerhouse in international football (won the 1960 European Championship).
However, in recent times, Russia have failed to perform as they failed to get out of the group stage since 1986. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and playing as Russia, the national team have played at only three World Cups (not including 2018) and only won two of the nine games they have played.
Nevertheless, expectations are high this time around as Russia are the hosts and also would have the backing of the home fans, while the vast majority of their squad play in Russia, which will provide the team with much needed confidence.
Pressure as a host?
Despite mentioning that Russia may have an advantage as an host, there is also the added pressure of performing well and progressing into the later stages.
Furthermore, there is an political incentive surrounding Russia’s high expectations as the Russian government demand that the national team should be challenging to win the World Cup and not just making up the numbers.
Yet, how did previous hosts perform at footballs most prestigious stage?
As mentioned above, South Africa became the first hosts to fail to make it past the group stage. Although they picked up four points (including a win over France), the Bafana Bafana were not expected to make it to the latter stages of the competition, with the second round seen as success.
Nevertheless, the hosts were knocked out in the first hurdle but did turn out a dignified showing. In 2002, South Korea and Japan became the first countries to co-host the World Cup. Similar to South Africa, the two nations were not expected to go far in the tournament but surprised the world with their performance (especially South Korea).
Japan made it to the last sixteen, whereas South Korea finished fourth, the latter being the first Asian team to make it to the last four. USA in 1994 is another example of a host upsetting the odds. The Americans were only semi-professional when they went to Italia 90.
Although, commercially they were expected to go far, the footballing world did not see the USA making it past the first round. However, USA made it through to the second round before being defeated by eventual Champions Brazil.
Russia has similarities with South Africa, Japan, South Korea and the USA, as these teams were not renowned as challengers for the World Cup and not progressing far prior to hosting the event.
With the exception of South Africa, the other hosts made it out of the group stage, something Russia needs to do if they are to impress.
As mentioned above, the majority of the Russian squad plays in the national league.
This can be seen as twofold. On one hand, this gives the national team an advantage as the players will be used to the atmosphere, the playing and weather conditions and also the idea of playing on a plastic pitch.
However, the quality of the Russian league is not held in high esteem as other leagues, while Russians clubs have not performed strongly in recent European campaigns. This suggest that the Russian squad are not seen as strong as the other teams.
In regards to who is Russia’s shining light, there are a few players that fit this criteria.
One is Igor Akinfeev. The Russian shot stopper plies his trade as CSKA Moscow, while also captaining the national side. He is regarded highly in both Russia and also in the world. Interestingly, Akinfeev has broken the national record of clean sheets for his club a country, a record that was held by legendary keeper Lev Yashin,
Alexander Kokorin is another player that is held in high regard by the national team. Kokorin played at the 2014 edition and is seen as the poster boy to lead Russia to glory. The six foot forward leads the line for Zenit St Petersburg. The Russian likes to take on his opponent and known for his finishing ability. However, Kokorin has struggled to score for the national team, with 12 in 46 caps, with his last goal coming in June 2016. If Kokorin is expect to carry Russia, he needs to rediscover his scoring form on the national stage.
Alan Dzagoev is another player that people should take note. Burst onto the scene with three goals at Euro 2012, the CSKA Moscow winger is known for his through balls, cutting for the inside and key passes. Dzagoev missed Euro 2016 and the Confederations Cup and was sorely missed. If Dzagoev can stay fit, he will be vital for Russia in progressing.
Verdict: Can Russia make it past the first hurdle?
Overall, recent showings and lack of creativity puts Russia at an disadvantage of performing well at the World cup.
Although the group stages have not been made yet, Russia have failed to make most of an modest groups in previous tournaments. Luckily, Russia are seeded in pot one due to their stature as hosts, which avoids them facing the big boys in the group phase.
Nevertheless, the national team have a lot to do if they expect to go far next summer.
Written by James Reidy
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