Russia’s 2-0 win in the opening game of the Confederations Cup over New Zealand was essential. The hosts were expected to beat a young All Whites side, ranked 95th in the world. Although Russia did not set the world alight with their performance, it was a deserved win and they looked comfortable. They did not buckle under the pressure of being the host nation or seem fazed by the fact that they were expected to win this game. Expectation can do strange things to a team. Just ask England.
Luckily for Russia, expectation should no longer be a factor, as games against Portugal and Mexico look difficult. The prevailing thought in Moscow is that they might draw one of their remaining group games and sneak through to the knockout stages. On paper, getting out of a group that contains the reigning European and Gold Cup Champions would be no mean feat for a side ranked 63rd in the world.
Indeed, few people are positive about Russia’s chances. This is not the swashbuckling team of Euro 2008, where the trickery of Andrei Arshavin propelled Russia to a semi-final. That team had strong defensive unity, a relatively creative midfield and attackers that could make a difference. Now Russia is pinning its hopes on CSKA Moscow’s young midfielder Alexander Golovin and a few other players who could at best be described as solid. An inspiring, Arshavin-esque talisman is lacking.
The cautious optimism that so often seems to infiltrate a host nation is also in short supply. Many Russian football fans seem resigned to the fact that this team is simply not good enough. Getting out of this group would be seen as a great success. If Russia do suffer an early exit, there is a risk that the already minimal public interest in the Confederations Cup could diminish. Even big hitters such as Portugal and Germany have not been able to sell out stadiums.
Of course, the success of next year’s World Cup hinges on public interest. Local residents in smaller host cities like Saransk or Volgograd may not fancy forking out the roubles to see Iran play Ecuador, but they are far more likely to if there is a mood of optimism across the country. For stadiums to be filled next year, the Russian team need to convince their public that they can cause an upset.
And so, despite winning their opening game, Russia are under pressure to push on. The excitement of winning another game or playing in the knockout stages could galvanise the country ahead of next year. There may be little expectation on the shoulders of this Russian team, but there certainly is pressure.