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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Russia 'still fine-tuning' ahead of opening 2018 World Cup match against Saudi Arabia

Hosts kick off the tournament against Juan Antonio Pizzi's men at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Thursday

Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov, right, leads a training session in Novogorsk ahead of the opening match against Saudi Arabia. Alexander Nemenov / AFP
Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov, right, leads a training session in Novogorsk ahead of the opening match against Saudi Arabia. Alexander Nemenov / AFP

Hosts Russia are focused solely on this week’s World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia, although the players conceded on Monday that they have yet to study their opponents in great detail despite the match fast approaching.

The home side, preparing to stage football’s premier event for the first time, kick off the four-week tournament against Juan Antonio Pizzi's men at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The game pits together the two lowest-ranked sides in the competition, with Saudi placed 67th in the latest Fifa standings and Russia 70th.

As such, expectations are not too great for Stanislav Cherchesov’s side, who come into the match winless in seven. Progressing from a Group A also containing Uruguay and Egypt would therefore be viewed by many Russians as success. Should they advance, Russia will meet either Spain or Portugal in the last 16.

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The squad have been training at UTC Novogorsk to the north-west of the city centre, and met with members of the media on Monday. With a talented Uruguay to come in their final group assignment on June 25, Russia realise a strong start is required should they have any chance of making the knockouts. After Saudi on Thursday, they face Egypt five days later in Saint Petersburg.

"We've watched their recent matches and both teams look impressive,” said defender Vladimir Granat, in line for a place in the starting XI following a raft of injuries to Russia's backline in the build-up to the tournament. “There are no weak teams at the World Cup.”

Asked specifically about the test the Saudis would present, Granat said: "The coach is still analysing their pros and cons and looking at their technical play. The detailed analysis of our opponents is still ahead.

"We're still fine-tuning and gaining our top form. Hopefully we'll reach that for the opening match."

Brazil-born defender Mario Fernandes echoed Granat. The right-back, who joined CSKA Moscow in 2012 and subsequently acquired Russian citizenship, made his debut for his adopted country last October. He has gone on to earn five caps.

“The coach will show us a video of the good and bad parts of the Saudi team and explain to us how we can use their weaknesses to our advantage,” Fernandes said. “Every game is important, but we have to think about only the next game. The first game is against Saudi Arabia, so we are putting all our focus on that match and will arrive with the best possible preparation."

Fernandez would not go as far as declaring the opening match a must-win for Russia, saying: “Every game is decisive and difficult, so you have to only focus on the next one and don’t look too far forward. Saudi Arabia is next, so we are training a lot so we are missing nothing when we face them and can play a great game because we know it is very important.”

Russia have never previously progressed beyond the group stages at a World Cup in three attempts, while Saudi Arabia, contesting their first finals since 2006, reached the last 16 once before, in 1994.