Can Russia progress beyond the World Cup group phase?
Moscow, May 31: Only once before has a World Cup host nation failed to progress beyond the competition's first stage. That dubious distinction belongs to South Africa, who were sent packing 11 days into the 2010 tournament despite an unlikely victory over France and a spirited draw against Mexico.
A cursory glance at recent results would suggest that Russia could suffer the same fate when they host the 2018 edition of football's flagship event, which begins on June 14, reports Xinhua news agency.
In their last three major tournaments — the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 European Championship and the 2017 Confederations Cup — Russia have managed just one victory, three draws and five losses. In those fixtures they scored seven goals and conceded 12.
Coached by Stanislav Cherchesov, Russia haven't fared much better in recent international friendlies, with home losses to France, Brazil and Argentina punctuated by a 3-3 draw with Spain. Despite having played each of their past six fixtures at home, Russia has not won since overcoming South Korea 4-2 in Moscow last October.
But it's not all bad news for the hosts.
The Sbornaya — as the national team are known — have been favoured by being drawn in what is perhaps the World Cup's weakest group. Their tournament opener is against 67th ranked Saudi Arabia on June 14 and will be followed by a clash with Egypt, who will play in only their third World Cup.
Russia will meet Uruguay in the final group match hoping that Oscar Tabarez's side is already guaranteed of a berth in the knockout phase and therefore have little motivation. However that may be wishful thinking. Just making it to the tournament's second phase will represent a triumph of sorts for Cherchesov.
The Russian squad lacks depth and world class talent. Cherchesov's options have been further limited by the absences of Viktor Vasin, Georgi Dzhikiya and Aleksandr Kokorin due to knee injuries.
Defenders Vasin and Dzhikiya will be particularly missed, having been among Russia's few shining lights during last year's Confederations Cup. However fellow center-back Fedor Kudryashov appears certain to feature in the starting lineup, as does CSKA Moscow's Brazilian right-back Mario Fernandes.
The latter became available when he was granted Russian citizenship via presidential decree in 2016. CSKA's Alan Dzagoev is expected to anchor the midfield, aided by his 21-year-old club teammate Aleksandr Golovin and Spartak Moscow's Roman Zobnin.
The versatile twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk, 22, are also likely to be given plenty of chances to show their worth in midfield or attack. But the team will again be without holding midfielder Igor Denisov due to a long-standing row with Cherchesov.
In the final third, the hosts will miss Kokorin, who scored 19 times in 35 appearances for Zenit St Petersburg in 2017-18 before his injury. However they still have Fyodor Smolov, who has netted 63 goals for Krasnodar in the past three seasons.
Igor Akinfeev will be entrusted with the goalkeeping duties despite his shaky displays at the 2014 World Cup and the Confederations Cup. So can Russia progress beyond the group stage? Probably not. Even with their home advantage, the Sbornaya can only realistically fancy their chances in the opening fixture against Saudi Arabia.
Against Egypt they will need Mohamed Salah to have a rare off day and they will likely be outclassed by Uruguay in the final group match, even if the South Americans have little to play for.