As lowest-ranked team, World Cup hosts Russia hope for upset

MOSCOW (Reuters) - World Cup hosts Russia, the lowest-ranked team in next year’s tournament, hope to get past the group stage for the first time in post-Soviet history but, with a tepid attack, inconsistent goalkeeping and stiff competition, the odds are slim.

Soccer Football - International Friendly - Russia vs Spain - Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg, Russia - November 14, 2017 Russia’s Vladimir Gabulov with manager Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov and Fedor Smolov REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The country, competing as Russia and the Soviet Union, has made 10 World Cup appearances and will host the tournament for the first time next June and July.

In their three appearances since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1994, 2002 and 2014, Russia have failed to reach the knockout stage. Doing so on home turf at the 2018 tournament would represent a significant accomplishment for Stanislav Cherchesov’s side.

Appointed manager after Russia’s early exit from the 2016 European championship, Cherchesov has few options to add depth to the team.

Unlike other teams in the World Cup finals, Russia have not had the chance to gauge their strength in qualifying, relying on international friendlies to prepare for the tournament.

Critics say Russian players, most of whom play in their country’s domestic league, have been cocooned from high-caliber competition, hindering their development.

Russia are heavily dependent on game-changing saves by veteran goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev, who has a checkered history in international matches.

At the 2014 World Cup, a jittery Akinfeev fumbled the ball on a harmless shot to give South Korea a goal and a 1-1 draw, a gaffe that contributed to Russia’s group-stage exit without a win.

The team will be looking for a spark from strikers Alexander Kokorin and Fedor Smolov, who lead the Russian Premier League scoring list this season with nine and eight goals respectively.

Kokorin, who plays for Zenit St Petersburg, seems to have regained his form after recently being recalled to the national team for the first time in nearly a year.

The 26-year-old had been excluded over poor play and participation in a champagne-fueled party in Monaco after Russia crashed out of the Euros.

Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Dmitry Solovyov and Clare Fallon