Moscow, Russia | AFP | Russia breathed a collective sigh of relief on Friday after avoiding Spain and looking like favourites to make it out of their group in their first home World Cup.
“The ideal group,” the government-run R-Sport news agency shouted in a banner headline on its website after the State Kremlin Palace draw saw them paired with Saudi Arabia and Egypt for next year’s finals.
Russia should face a sterner test in Luis Suarez’s Uruguay — the two-time World Cup winners who also have Paris Saint-Germain’s danger man Edinson Cavani.
But both coaches and pundits alike were in good spirits after avoiding the potential disaster of being drawn in a “Group of Death” with sport-mad President Vladimir Putin watching on.
Egypt will be spearheaded by Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah while Saudi Arabia will make their first return to the World Cup since 2006.
“I think that this is a perfect — even ideal — group,” former Russia coach and three-time domestic Premier League champion Valery Gazzayev told R-Sport.
The Russian Football Union’s honorary president Vyacheslav Koloskov agreed that “we got lucky with the draw”.
“We should be able to handle all those teams,” he said.
Russia launch their campaign to win Group A against Saudi Arabia in Moscow’s historic and completely refurbished Luzhniki Stadium in the tournament’s opening match on June 14.
— #WorldCupDraw ? (@FIFAWorldCup) December 1, 2017
– Looking for 2008 glory –
Russia have not advanced beyond the first round in three World Cup appearances since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The pressure is on coach Stanislav Cherchesov — the former Spartak Moscow goalkeeper — to repeat Russia’s dream run at Euro 2008.
The flamboyant and pacy team from nearly a decade ago stunned the Netherlands 3-1 in the quarter-finals before being beaten 3-0 by eventual champions Spain that year.
Cherchesov appeared to be trying to play it coy by saying he did not know much about the teams in his group.
“I cannot say whether I’m happy or not,” he told reporters. “I’m not familiar with any of our group’s teams.”
But he also conceded: “We just didn’t want to get Spain from pot two.”
Yet Russia will get Spain in the last 16 if they fail to win their group and the 2010 World Cup champions make it past Portugal in a Group B that also includes Morocco and Iran.
And victory in Group A could possibly hand Russia a matchup with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo — Europe’s most lethal striker whose form is at a dizzying high.
A look even further down the road shows a potential quarter-final draw against record five-time champions Brazil and a semi-final date with France.
But all those permutations are moot should Russia fail to beat the teams that their beleaguered fans expect: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
World Cup organising committee chief Alexei Sorokin warned on the eve of the draw that Russia tended to play to the level of their opponents.
“In the history of our games, we showed very moderate performance with teams which we did not consider very strong, and sometimes showed outstanding performance against very strong teams,” Sorokin told AFP.
Logic would suggest that Russia should be sweating over the fact that they did not get drawn against one of the more glamorous nations such as England, Brazil or Germany.
But Sorokin said the team were hitting their stride after losing just 1-0 to Argentina and drawing 3-3 with Spain in home friendlies last month.
And he dismissed the idea that players might grow weak in the knees at the prospect of playing under Putin’s stern gaze.
“I am sure that they are professional players and they can cope with it,” said Sorokin.