Moscow (AFP) – World Cup hosts Russia were licking their wounds after successive beatings by Brazil and France exposed dire shortcomings ahead of the June kickoff to the international football extravaganza.
It was a month to forget for coach Stanislav Cherchesov and fans desperate to see their team make it past the World Cup group stage for the first time since the Soviet era.
As well as the two defeats, racism reared its ugly head in Russian football once again, as French players Paul Pogba and Ousman Dembele were allegedly subjected to monkey chants on Tuesday.
The month began with bad news for Cherchesov as two starting defenders and a striker all suffered identical knee injuries that have ruled them out of the World Cup.
The impact of their absence was on vivid display in a 3-0 loss to Brazil on Friday in Moscow and 3-1 defeat by France in Saint Petersburg.
France’s Kylian Mbappe made Russia’s backline look pedestrian while scoring two and silencing the crowd of 50,000.
And only some instinctive saves from veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev had averted added humiliation as Russia were totally outplayed by Brazil.
“Except for Akinfeev and one or two others, I simply do not see anyone who can play at a high level at a tournament such as a World Cup,” former Russia coach Oleg Romantsev lamented.
– ‘We’re not ready’ –
Russia have not won in their last five matches 0 — all at home — and conceded a combined nine goals in their last three.
It is true that the four latest results came against teams of the highest calibre and included a 3-3 with Spain after a 1-0 defeat to Argentina in November.
But Russia had previously developed a reputation of playing up to the level of their competition.
The decision to line up four former World Cup winners in a row was meant to prove Russia had nothing to fear on home soil.
That claim now looks increasingly hollow after losing three of the four.
“If we lose, it shows we are not ready to play in the World Cup,” Russian Football Union member Andrei Sozin warned ahead of the France showdown.
Russia and Uruguay are still the favourites to progress from World Cup Group A, though, which includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
But their failure to do so would consign this generation of players to one of the darkest chapters of Russian and Soviet football history.
The problems for Cherchesov come at both ends.
The loss of striker Alexander Kokorin has left Fedor Smolov — author of Russia’s goal on Tuesday — as Cherchesov’s only proven scorer.
Moscow’s Sport Express newspaper said Russia will probably look to their attacking midfielders for salvation because they have no other viable striking options.
Yet it remains unclear how Cherchesov intends to patch up his back line without injured pair Georgy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin.
Sport Express called Russia’s problems at the back almost irreparable.
“There is no competition in defence,” the newspaper wrote.
“And the saddest thing is that time after time, we gave up goals after individual mistakes by centre backs who are simply a class lower than their competition.”
Russia’s stand-in centre-back Roman Neustadter strongly disagreed.
“The longer we play together before the World Cup, the better we will get,” he said.
Russia will close out preparations on May 30 in Innsbruck against Austria and June 5 against Turkey in Moscow.