WORLD CUP: Injuries, dull style a concern for host Russia

(AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

By JAMES ELLINGWORTH

AP Sports Writer

MOSCOW (AP) No Russian team has made it out of the group stage at the World Cup since the Soviet era and a spate of recent injuries is going to make it tough on the hosts again this year.

Expectations have plummeted since Russia won the right to host the World Cup eight years ago. Back then, the team glowed with potential after reaching the semifinals at the 2008 European Championship.

But there has been no Russian revival. Despite having the largest population in Europe and a rich football history, Russia is a sleeping giant that remains dormant.

At Euro 2018, Russia was better known for its marauding hooligans than its defense-first approach in games.

The Russians appeared to have the luck of the draw at the Kremlin in December, however. They were handed a World Cup opener on June 14 against Saudi Arabia - the only team in the FIFA rankings below the hosts - while Egypt and Uruguay complete the group.

However, recent friendlies have shown the injury-hit Russian defense could struggle to contain two of the game's most potent strikers: Mohamed Salah of Egypt and Luis Suarez of Uruguay.

Even if Russia makes it out of the group, a stiff challenge is likely in the next round from Portugal or Spain.

Russia's World Cup squad will consist almost entirely of players who play in the domestic league, largely thanks to a limit on foreign players. Advocates of the curbs say it ensures homegrown youngsters get a fair chance to develop, but critics argue that reducing inter-squad competition and lower-quality opposition can make players complacent.

Here's a closer look at the Russia team:

Stanislav Cherchesov has tried to refresh a team that was one of the oldest at Euro 2016.

The former international goalkeeper made younger players such as Roman Zobnin (24) and Aleksandr Golovin (21) into key members of the team, but has yet to turn that potential into standout performances.

Injuries have put his preference for three central defenders under scrutiny, since the replacements have struggled in friendlies.

Russia captain Igor Akinfeev shot to fame as the 22-year-old goalkeeper who pulled off stunning saves on the team's way to the semifinals at Euro 2008.

Predictions of a big-money transfer never materialized and he spent his entire career at CSKA Moscow. He has a tendency to make errors in high-profile games, including an embarrassing fumble which let South Korea score at the 2014 World Cup.

Injuries have hit Russia's back line hard, with central defenders Viktor Vasin and Georgy Dzhikiya both sustaining severe knee injuries.

In their place, the trio of Fyodor Kudryashov, Roman Neustaedter and Vladimir Granat were overwhelmed by France in a 3-1 friendly loss in March.

Former Chelsea wingback Yuri Zhirkov could start on the left, with Brazil-born Mario Fernandes a contender for a spot on the right.

Zobnin and Golovin are Russia's main emerging talents.

Golovin, a creative spark for CSKA Moscow, seemed overawed at Euro 2016 but now has more experience.

Playing deeper than he does for Spartak Moscow, Denis Glushakov is likely to be under pressure as the main defensive midfielder. And playmaker Alan Dzagoev, once considered one of Europe's brightest young talents but now 27, has a chance to finally make a meaningful impact at international level.

Aleksandr Kokorin's injury has dramatically reduced Russia's attacking options.

Fyodor Smolov, the Russian league's top scorer for the last three seasons, is the clear leading choice, but understudies Dmitry Poloz and Anton Zabolotny have failed to impress so far.

Cherchesov could still call on Artyom Dzyuba, who has 11 goals in 22 Russia games, but his stock has fallen after conflicts with the Zenit St. Petersburg management led to him being sent on loan to Arsenal Tula.

The hosts open the tournament against Saudi Arabia on June 14 in Moscow, near their training base. Russia, which reached the quarterfinals in 1958, 1962 and 1970 as the Soviet Union, then faces Egypt on June 19 and Uruguay on June 25.

More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Updated April 24, 2018

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