Moscow: World Cup hosts Russia are surfing a wave of national euphoria as they head into Monday’s encounter against two-time champions Uruguay after delighting their fans with a scintillating start to the tournament.
Written off as no-hopers before the World Cup, Russia head to the Volga River city of Samara for a game which will see the winner secure top spot in Group A following the elimination of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
A draw would also be good enough to give Russia first place, thanks to the eight goals from two matches that have made believers out of fans used to decades of World Cup futility.
Both teams then face the likely prospect of going up against either Spain or Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the last 16 — although underdogs Iran are still in the running in a tight Group B.
Uruguay, however, are likely to provide the type of stern test Russia will need to overcome if they are launch an extended run in the knockout rounds.
Yet, the hosts are brimming with confidence having made it past the group stage of a World Cup for the first time since the Soviet Union lost to Belgium in the last 16 in 1986.
‘Mission not accomplished’
Russia had won just two of nine World Cup matches before kicking off the most watched event on the planet with a 5-0 rout of the Saudis.
Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko — the former sports minister who still oversees football in an unofficial capacity — said the squad had no right to relax.
“Our mission has still not been accomplished,” Mutko said after watching a team training session on the outskirts of a muggy Moscow.
“We would like to get into the knockout stage from first place.”
Russia followed their Saudi thrashing by limiting Egypt’s star striker Mohamed Salah — nursing a shoulder injury but always dangerous — to one goal in an impressive 3-1 win last Tuesday in Saint Petersburg.
Salah was contained by a Russian defence that had lost three starters and was forced to call back 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich from international retirement.
Ignashevich turns 39 on the eve of the final on July 15 that Russia retain improbable dreams of playing in. Few believe they will.
A poll conducted in the wake of their win over Egypt showed just 14 per cent think Russia can lift the trophy.
Midfielder Denis Cheryshev has been one of the World Cup’s big discoveries and a natural leader on a team without stars.
“We have to be very happy with our wins,” said the 27-year-old.
“But but this is just the start,” he added. — AFP