Hosts Russia kick off the Confederations Cup against New Zealand in Saint Petersburg on Saturday, targeting victory in their opening match to set the tone for a successful tournament.
But Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov, appointed after the country’s disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, predicts a tricky encounter as he oversees his first competitive match in charge.
The former Russian international goalkeeper has set his squad the ambitious task of winning the Confed Cup, a tournament that serves as a tune-up for next year’s World Cup.
“We’re ready to face a likeable New Zealand team but we expect a difficult match (on Saturday),” he told reporters on Friday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the opener along with FIFA boss Gianni Infantino at Saint Petersburg’s purpose-built World Cup 68,000-seater stadium.
“For us it’s a privilege and honour to represent our country. Our team welcomes Russia’s president watching our matches.
“And we naturally want to achieve better results than our team showed recently.”
It will be the first meeting between Russia and New Zealand, the champions of Oceania, in the post-Soviet era. The USSR beat New Zealand 3-0 at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Organisers have laid fresh turf at the Krestovsky Stadium to allay fears over the condition of the pitch that prompted Zenit to shift their final league match to their former ground.
Russia have produced mixed results since Cherchesov’s arrival with three wins, three draws and three defeats.
‘Full of optimism’
They salvaged an impressive 3-3 draw with Belgium, but that followed a 2-0 home defeat to Ivory Coast – Russia’s first loss to an African team – and a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Qatar.
However results in recent friendlies – a 3-0 win in Hungary and a 1-1 draw with Copa America holders Chile – have given the country’s football fans some hope.
“We’ve worked hard and I believe now we’re well-prepared for the opening game,” Zenit midfielder Igor Smolnikov told Russian TV.
“But we will be able to check whether we’ve done everything right only once we play in official matches.
“We’re all feeling brave and will take things on full of optimism. Hopefully, the arena in Saint Petersburg will be a lucky venue for our team.”
New Zealand are appearing at the Confederations Cup for the fourth time, although the All Whites are still hunting for a first victory in the eight-team competition.
Anthony Hudson’s side are through to the final round of regional World Cup qualifying and will play Solomon Islands in a two-legged play-off, but New Zealand suffered 1-0 defeats to Northern Ireland and Belarus in recent friendlies.
Hudson though insists his players are raring to go in Russia.
“We’re 100 percent ready. We have a very, very good team, we have some good players in our team and the objective for us is to do something significant,” he said. “We’re very optimistic coming into this tournament.
“There is no point in us being here if we’re not trying to win. The first game for us is Russia and we want to win that game. And we will go into the next game with the same mindset. We know they are strong but we have no fear of them.”