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Hosts Russia have point to prove in World Cup opener

AFP  |  Moscow 

Host nation are under enormous pressure to perform as they head into Thursday's curtainraiser against 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 with last week made former national team Cherchesov the first Russian or Soviet to go winless in seven consecutive games, four of those ending in defeat.

has spent more than $13 billion on preparations for the big event, and called on the team to pull themselves together as they look to progress from a section also featuring and

"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 in -- 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 for more than a decade, admits his team-mates must take the game to the opposition.

"The team have to come out and play," Akinfeev said after a 1-0 friendly loss to last month in which Russia managed no shots on target.

"If they do not, the score is not going to change." Akinfeev, the Russian captain, has played more games for club and country than Soviet goalkeeping legends and

But the team's reliance on the 32-year-old, who infamously went a staggering 43 matches without keeping a clean sheet over an 11-year span, speaks volumes about the home team's chances.

Russia have never made the knockout stage of a as an independent nation and are desperate to make amends this summer.

Only South Africa, in 2010, have fallen at the group stage as hosts but poor form combined with a series of have left Russia in disarray.

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Zenit St Petersburg striker was lost to a serious knee in March, adding to the absence of defenders and

Krasnodar forward and Artem Dzyuba, loaned out to Arsenal Tula in January after falling out with ex-Zenit Roberto Mancini, will spearhead the attack, while former Real Madrid is back in the squad after more than two years out.

are returning to the global showpiece for the first time since 2006, prompting the country's authority to strike a pact to send players on loan to to gain experience at the top level.

Fahad Al-Muwallad, whose goal against last September clinched qualification, was one of nine players involved in the agreement but it was derided as a "fiasco".

Muwallad, who was on loan at Levante, and Salem Al-Dawsari, at Villarreal, only played for a few minutes at the end of the season.

Attacking Yahia Al-Sheri, who went to Leganes, never played in a match.

"From a sporting point of view, this is perhaps the biggest fiasco of the agreement, because the participation of these nine players has been practically negligible," former Gijon and University of economist told AFP.

"Knowing training techniques or playing with Spaniards, that is not why they come, clearly. They come for more than that, to contribute, to experience another rhythm of play, and that is done by playing, not training." Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, who had a three-week spell training with Manchester United, bagged a staggering 16 goals in qualifying, but the 31-year-old arrives at the finals stuck in a nine-game scoring drought.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Tue, June 12 2018. 19:50 IST