Asked if Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against Croatia was his team’s games of their lives, Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov simply shrugged.
“I hope that the most important games are still ahead of us,” he responded in front of a pack press conference in Sochi on Friday. “Is this a good answer? You asked me and, well, we say that ‘brevity is the sister of genius’, as Anton Chekhov said.”
As far as press conferences go, it was a pretty decent start. Predictably, it soon reverted to type, though, with Cherchesov asked about the pressure of performing as hosts, the threat posed by Croatia and the pre-tournament criticism that has transformed into mid-tournament cheer.
He has tried to avoid the hype, where possible. That can become ever more difficult, however, when you emerge from a group you weren’t expected to, then defeat 2010 world champions, and many people’s tips for a repeat eight years on, in the previous round.
Spain were beaten on penalties on Sunday and Moscow led the country-wide celebrations. Yet Cherchesov has got the blinkers on.
“As a coach, I’m trying not to watch the TV, I don’t read newspapers,” he said. “I’m concentrated on my job and that’s it. I believe that’s the same with the players.
“It’s a good story to remind ourselves of this game against Spain. For this country, it was a great step forward. But let us look forward. This is a different game and I’m absolutely sure that in the quarter-final you get to a different level.
“You say people are euphoric. Well, in the team, we’re not the people who should be euphoric. The journalists can be. The tournament is going on and we see the team that theoretically was one of the best has packed up and gone home already.
Now this is the last chance for every team, so we should start playing for the first minute tomorrow.”
World Cup 2018 second round guide and predictions: Croatia to prevail against Russia
Agreed, their opponents at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi demand focus right from the off. Croatia topped a group containing Argentina, although they did need penalties themselves on Sunday to see off Denmark in the last 16.
Zlatko Dalic’s side are blessed with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, who represent Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. In contrast, two of Russia’s 23-man squad play their club football outside the home country.
“We know every one of their players because they play in the top leagues in the top clubs and we are preparing ourselves for a very serious match,” Cherchesov said. “I will not focus on one player in the Croatian team.
“They are playing great in all positions and I can’t say one player is better than the other. We will have to do something with our players to play against them as a team, and individually our players will have to play well.”
Presidential backing can help in that. Vladimir Putin has been regularly in touch, despite not being able to attend any of Russia’s matches except for the opening evisceration of Saudi Arabia on June 14.
“Putin has been calling me. He called me before the Spanish game and after,” Cherchesov said. “Of course, when the president supports you it this makes you comfortable and the players know this. This is just an extra boost for us in terms of motivation.”