In Kiev last Saturday, you could have heard a pin drop after half an hour of the Uefa Champions League final. Mohamed Salah was leaving the field, tearful. Even among the Real Madrid fans, their team plainly benefiting from the withdrawal, wounded, from the stage of Liverpool’s most penetrating footballer, there was a hush.
Beyond the eastern border of Ukraine, there may well have been some folk watching on television who found their sympathy with Salah give way to a positive murmur. Across Russia, the thought sprang up that the Egyptian’s shoulder injury, severe enough to curtail his participation in the biggest club match of his life, might carry an indirect blessing. In the nation about to host world sport’s great showpiece event, Salah has long been viewed as the principal single impediment to a swell of national pride.
The logic is this. Russia’s flawed squad have what looks not much better than an even chance of progressing into the knockout stage of next month’s World Cup, even though Group A, into which the hosts are automatically slotted, turned out relatively kind to them, on paper. After all, it contains no country within the top 15 of the Fifa world rankings and only two within the top 50. And Russia get to start against Saudi Arabia, who have a flimsy World Cup record.
The trouble is that, by many reckonings, that opening match, 15 days away, shapes up as the meeting of Group A’s potential also-rans, the 67th best national team according to Fifa, against the 66th. The following day, the stars come out, Group A favourites Uruguay against the runners-up at the last Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt, 46th on the Fifa ladder.
Most Russians expect that a joust to join the Uruguay of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez in the last 16 will be between the hosts and the Egyptians. Although the assessments of the totemic Salah's shoulder ligaments being made by Egypt's Football Association are optimistic in terms of his recovery for the final, there must be doubts about his reaching full fitness by June 19, when Russia play the Pharaohs in Saint Petersburg.
That’s Matchday 2, and even if Salah, whose goals guided Egypt to their first World Cup finals since 1990, has been repaired enough to have faced Uruguay four days earlier, his tender shoulder will have had to take some barging from the likes of Diego Godin, the teak-tough marshall of the Uruguay defence.
All these hypotheses about the Salah-factor are not on the mind of Russia’s manager, Stanislav Cerchesov, he insisted ahead of Wednesday’s friendly in Innsbruck against Austria, the first of two preparation matches – Russia host Turkey next Tuesday – where morale needs to be lifted and the dynamics of a rather makeshift first XI established. A win would be useful, too. Russia have only known victory once in their last nine games, 4-2 in a friendly against South Korea last October.
“We know we aren’t favourites,” said Cherchesov, a former World Cup goalkeeper for the national team and the third manager Russia have had in the past three years. “But we must go out and be ourselves. We’ll see if that is good enough.”
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What he cannot do next month is field the Russia most likely to show the best of itself. Injuries have ruled out two members of what would be the preferred defence – Viktor Vasin and Giorgi Dzhikya – and the Zenit Saint-Petersburg striker Alex Kokorin, who had been designated to lead the attack. In search of a rock for his back line, Cherchesov drafted in Sergei Ignashevich to his short-list of players for the tournament. The CSKA Moscow stopper will turn 39 on the eve of the World Cup final.
Up front, in Kokorin’s absence, Russia will look to Fyodor Smolov and Aleksei Miranchuk to provide thrust and some evidence that the standards of the Russian Premier League, where all but two of the men on Russia’s World Cup shortlist earn a living, are not in steep decline, and that the many foreign footballers enticed there by handsome salaries are not stifling opportunity for native talent.
Cherchesov knows he will need some calm, worldly allies on the pitch come June 14 and the opening match. Pressure on the hosts is heavy, and Russia are anxious to avoid what happened to South Africa when they put on a World Cup eight years ago. Thanks to a thumping defeat by Uruguay, the South Africans became the first and so far only host nation to fall out at the group phase. Better that, and the Russians will feel so relieved it might just give them wings to go further than the last 16.