Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov says his players must forget about the negative publicity surrounding the team and focus solely on getting a positive result against Saudi Arabia when the World Cup kicks off in Moscow on Thursday.
The hosts, at 70th in the Fifa standings the tournament’s lowest-ranked team, face their Arabian Gulf rivals at the Luzhniki Stadium knowing there is little expectation within the country that the national team will have a strong tournament.
Russia’s build-up has been blighted by injuries and thus uncertainty regarding team selection, while they have failed to win any of their past seven matches.
Drawn in Group A alongside Saudi, Uruguay and Egypt, progression to the knockout stages for the first time (post-Soviet) would be viewed by many as success.
The pressure on Russia to perform remains, though, given their position as hosts and the fact their group is considered one of the easiest in the tournament. Saudi, for example, are the event’s second-lowest ranked side, at 67th.
“We can’t really influence people’s opinions,” Cherchesov said on Wednesday. “We can only show what kind of a group we have in our matches. We have been studying our opponents from Day 1 and my players would never say there are weak teams in any of the groups.
“This is a World Cup. Every team is representing their country; they will do their best. The first game is important; it will set a tone in a certain extent. We are trying to iron out any kinks we can iron out.
“We’re trying to do what we’re doing, and the fact we get criticism is a natural thing in today’s world. The only thing we can do is to continue to train as well as we can to improve the quality of our players. We talk about it every day, but never this subject.
Read more on World Cup 2018:
In pictures: How the home kits are ranked
"We have to do everything to deserve praise. We want to do everything we can to turn criticism into positive feedback and we have everything we need to do that. So we’re prepared as much as we can for tomorrow’s game.”
Cherchesov said his players have been relaxing on Wednesday by playing board games, while they planned later that evening to assess Saudi’s defensive strength. The previous day, they analysed their opponents’ attack.
Midfielder Alexsandr Samedov said the Russians have been impressed by Saudi’s recent displays, particularly against Italy and Germany, despite losing both 2-1.
"Indeed, we watched [last Friday’s Germany match], and not only that one, but also them playing Italy,” he said. “They are a very technically minded team, they like to hold the ball. And our objective is not to let them keep the ball.
Commenting on the criticism of his side, Samedov added: “We would all love it if there could be a bit more positive spirit around the team, but we have to contribute and generate this positivity around the team, so this would emanate from the press. We will try to demonstrate it at the World Cup.”