Russian squad aims to make the impossible possible

World cup russia
Russian football team. Photo courtesy of @rfpl

Statistics and history may not be on their side, but sometimes a home advantage can make all the difference on the day.

This is exactly what Russia will be hoping for in this week’s World Cup opener after the host country named their final 23-man team.

Leading the team sheet are the duo from PFC CSKA Moscow, national captain Igor Akinfeev and midfield superstar Aleksandr Golovin.

The Russian goalkeeper and captain Akinfeev is seen as one of the most influential figures for this year’s campaign. The PFC CSKA Moscow captain has more than 100 caps for his country and six Russian titles under his belt. The Russians will hope Akinfeev can continue to perform as in the national competition, where he has kept more clean sheets in Russian football history than any other goalkeeper. If the team is to succeed a strong showing from Akinfeev is a must.

Another vital player from PFC CSKA Moscow is 22-year-old Golovin.  The central midfielder is a star for the national club and is regarded as Russia’s greatest hope at this year’s competition. He creates plays, dictates the tempo and is in goalscoring form. In the past season of national competition, the midfielder scored seven times.

This World Cup marks the 11th time the Russians have competed on football’s biggest stage, but history is not on their side. The team has only made it past the group stage once (back when the nation appeared as the USSR) and will go into this competition at its lowest-ever world ranking of 70th. The ranking means Russia is the lowest-ranked team to try to win a World Cup on home soil. Add to this the fact Russia automatically qualified as the host nation and the odds are not great for the team. Nonetheless, their first match on Thursday will open the competition against Saudi Arabia, the next worst-ranked team.

In fact, Russia’s grouping against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay has been analysed by data guru Nate Silver as the easiest group in the modern history of the World Cup.

Homeground advantages have played a role in past World Cups. Remember South Korea making it all the way to the semifinals in 2002? Or even England winning the whole thing in 1966? A Russian win is incredibly unlikely, but with their grouping and home advantage, entry into the Round of 16 is possible.

Russian captain and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.

Odds do not mean too much to the fans in Russia, who clearly still believe their team could make the impossible possible. An open training session at the CSKA stadium in Moscow drew a crowd of more than 9000 to support their team last Saturday.

Furthermore, the team’s recent performances show a team that is willing to go up against any opponent as they’ve played recent friendlies against a quartet of former World Cup champions in Brazil, France, Spain and Argentina.

Russia also played a friendly match against Austria at the end of May, going down 1-0. But their match last week saw them neck-and-neck with their Turkish opponents to end at a 1-1 stalemate.

National coach Stanislav Cherchesov will hope the team’s grouping against Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia allows the team an unlikely run in the later stages. The former USSR and Russia international goalkeeper has experience as a player in the 1994 and 2002 FIFA World Cups, before being appointed coach in 2016.

The opening match, set to be held at Moscow’s 81,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium, will kick off the World Cup on Thursday as a champion for the month-long event across Russia will be crowned on July 15.

Russia’s final 23-man squad

Igor Akinfeev, Vladimir Gabulov, Andrey Lunev; Sergei Ignashevich, Mario Fernandes, Vladimir Granat, Fyodor Kudryashov, Andrei Semyonov, Igor Smolnikov, Ilya Kutepov, Aleksandr Yerokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Daler Kuzyaev, Aleksandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev, Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Samedov, Yuri Gazinsky, Anton Miranchuk, Denis Cheryshev, Artyom Dzyuba, Aleksei Miranchuk, Fyodor Smolov.

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