Decimated by injuries, darkened by off-pitch conflicts and cocooned from truly elite-competition, the mood is immensely gloomy for the host nation.
They have yet to progress past the group stages of a World Cup post Soviet Union and are also one of the lowest ranked teams in the competition.
As you can imagine, expectations are low. Indeed, the writing is on the wall, legible to all even if written in Cyrillic.
Defensively, Cherchesov has swapped to a back three but serious knee injuries for Viktor Vasin (CSKA) and Georgi Dzhikiya (Spartak Moscow) – the two youngsters brought in to replace Sergei Ignashevich (who has returned to the national team fold after retirement) and Vasily Berezutski – have left them painfully exposed.
They are short of goals, too. Aleksandr Kokorin was in rich goalscoring form plundering 19 times for Zenit before a knee injury ruled him out of the for Stanislav Cherchesov’s men is simply to get through to the knockouts.
Only once has a host nation suffered the indignity of failing to qualify from the group stages – South Africa in 2010 – but with Egypt serious contenders to progress alongside Uruguay, Russia are at risk of national embarrassment.
After the high of a Euro 2008 semi-final run, they have endured extreme lows since and ambitious talk of a quarter-final or last-four berth have faded entirely.
And to make matters worse one of their finer talents, Igor Denisov has been exiled having fallen out with Cherchesov at Dynamo Moscow, forming quite the toxic backdrop.
Another player that was left out of recent squads for the same reason is Artem Dzyuba after they had a conflict following the Confederations Cup, although the forward is expected to feature on home soil.
Their hopes lie with the technically gifted midfield operators Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Golovin from CSKA alongside twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk from Lokomotiv Moscow.
Of course, Igor Akinfeev remains a pillar of strength in goal, though even he has been prone to high-profile errors, notably against South Korea four years ago.
But with a squad dominated by players who largely play domestically, and qualification secured automatically as hosts, Russia is a team ring fenced from facing elite-level competition.
Ultimately, the forecast for them is somewhat akin to their winters – bitter disappointment.
An artistic playmaker, Dzagoev shot to prominence at Euro 2012, finishing as the tournament’s joint-top scorer. However, injuries have disarmed him and now aged 27 he carries immense expectation to perform.
A squad battered by injuries has Cherchesov on the back foot even before the tournament opener with Saudi Arabia. A defence-first policy has created a dull outfit and his penchant for three at the back has been scrutinised.
The goalkeeper was central to Russia’s remarkable Euro 2008 semi-final berth and while
he’s still held in high regard domestically, the now 32-year-old’s decline has mirrored that of his country as he’s failed to push on.
Russia’s finest talent, the 22-year-old has been in sparkling form for CSKA Moscow this season. He is a contrast to the dull nature of this team, a creative two-way player equally as strong in the tackle as he is sparking attacks.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Three key players have suffered severe knee injuries (Aleksandr Kokorin, Viktor Vasin and Georgy Dzhikiya)
– 10 years since Russia made it out of the group stage of any tournament
– Russia are the second lowest ranked team heading into their home World Cup
70 DEF 78 MID 76 ATT
World Cups competed at
11 (7 as Sovet Union)
World Cup record
P40, W17, D8, L15
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge), Andrey Lunyov (Zenit St Petersburg).
Defenders: Vladimir Granat, Fyodor Kudryashov (both Rubin Kazan), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Andrei Semyonov (Akhmat Grozny), Sergei Ignashevich, Mario Fernandes (both CSKA Moscow), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St Petersburg).
Midfielders: Yury Gazinsky (Krasnodar), Aleksandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev (both CSKA Moscow), Aleksandr Yerokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Daler Kuzyaev (all Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Samedov (both Spartak Moscow), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal).
Forwards: Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula), Aleksei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Fyodor Smolov (Krasnodar).
An ugly blend of a tepid attack, fragile defence, inconsistent goalkeeping and a dull style means expectations are extremely low. Getting out of the group stage would be a considerable success.
Sequels are very rarely better than the debut. Bloated by the success of the opener, the subsequent showing is usually flattened by the weight of expectation.
But there should be no fear for Senegal’s second World Cup appearance, although if it is anything like the first, we are all in for a thrilling ride.
Indeed, few sides in Russia will carry the burden of history quite like the Lions of Teranga but 16 years on from their celebrated debut, this new pride has plenty of pedigree.
The latest generation, headed up by sharp coach Aliou Cisse, is rich in talent, vibrancy and crucially a fearless trait which could see them create rave reviews of their own.
In 2002, Senegal stunned defending champions France in one of the tournament’s greatest shocks. They then held Denmark and Uruguay to draws, downed Sweden with a golden goal before losing out in extra-time to Turkey in the quarter-finals.
An indelible mark was left but despite players well-stocked with ability, Senegal failed to push on.
Now, armed with elite stars like Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), M’Baye Niang (AC Milan), Keita Balde (Monaco) and of course Sadio Mane (Liverpool), the squad has retained its African identity but unlike the 2002 iteration, it is meshed with continental experience.
The Lions qualified by defeating South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde and the draw placed them within in a testing but balanced group alongside Colombia, Poland and Japan.
But there are some question marks over the make-up and mentality of the team. Cisse has experimented with a 4-5-1 formation instead of the 4-3-3 used during qualifying and it has yielded mixed results with two draws.
And it is experience which brings the other question mark. The exposure to high-level competition on a national level is limited but what they lack in wisdom on the pitch, is made up for on the sidelines.
Cisse captained his side at the 2002 World Cup and can now bring calm as coach. But this team is more than capable of creating history of its own, whether it be this World Cup or the next.
Piercing pace married to dazzling dribbling to create goals and assists, Mane is one of Africa’s finest exports and he’s enjoyed another superb season as part of Liverpool’s terror trio. He’s beginning to embrace the enormous burden of expectation on his shoulders.
A fiercely intelligent man, Cisse is one of Africa’s most talented coaches and having captained the famous 2002 Senegal side, he is acutely aware of what it takes to
produce. The 42-year-old has forged a strong bond with much of his squad having coached many at U23 level.
The skipper is made of iron but for West Ham this season he’s been melted by a series of poor performances. For Senegal, though, the towering midfielder is a rugged ball-winner and a crucial cog in the central hub of a side that has so many attacking options.
The 23-year-old has operated on the left of an electric front three with Mane on the opposite side and Diafra Sakho through the middle. Took time to settle at Monaco last season after arriving from Serie A club Lazio, but has been decisive since the turn of the year.
STATS AND FACTS
– Senegal are the second ranked African team at the World Cup
– Seven of the first-team squad play their club football in England
– Their best finish at the Africa Cup of Nations is a runner-up spot in 2002
76 DEF, 77 MID, 77 ATT
World Cups competed at
2 (First in 2002)
World Cup record
P5, W2, D2, L1
P8, W5, D3
Goalkeepers: Khadim N’Diaye (Horoya AC), Abdoulaye Diallo (Rennes), Alfred Gomis (Torino).
Defenders: Kara Mbodji (Anderlecht), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Moussa Wague (Eupen), Saliou Ciss (Angers), Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux), Lamine Gassama (Alanyaspor).
Midfielders: Badou Ndiaye (Stoke), Idrissa Gueye (Everton), Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham), Cheikh N’Doye (Birmingham), Salif Sane (Hannover 96), Alfred N’Diaye (Villarreal).
Forwards: Moussa Sow (Bursaspor), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Keita Balde Diao (Monaco), Moussa Konate (Amiens), Ismaila Sarr (Rennes), Diafra Sakho (Rennes), Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke), M’Baye Niang (AC Milan).
Senegal are one of three African teams to have reached the World Cup quarter-finals and hopes are high this squad can at least match that.
Entering their fifth World Cup Finals – and first since 2010 – the Danes have momentum on their side after finishing second in a tricky qualifying group and seeing off Republic of Ireland emphatically in their two-legged play-off clash.
That 5-1 victory in Dublin, following a goalless draw in the tie’s opening clash, sent the footballing world a timely reminder of the talent the Red and Whites possess at their disposal.
The mood in and around the camp seems pretty buoyant, and on paper, they are favourites to finish second in Group C behind a star-studded France squad.
There’s a bit of déjà vu to this, too. Remarkably, Denmark and France were pitted in Group C way back at France ‘98, with the hosts (and eventual winners) topping proceedings while a side containing the talents of Peter Schmeichel and the Laudrup brothers ended as runners-up.
Les Bleus won their respective meeting 2-1, but still, a return of four points back then was enough to advance. Denmark went on to reach the last eight, losing to Brazil in a 3-2 thriller in Nantes.
Another lucky omen doesn’t have anything to do with footballing ability but rather the team’s iconic apparel. When you think of the country’s kit, immediately, sponsor Hummel springs to mind and its classic chequered line look on each sleeve, with a v-neck collar. This World Cup, it is back after somewhat of a hiatus given Adidas held the sponsorship agreement between 2004 and 2016.
On the pitch, Denmark have some decent quality and players who play on the biggest stages week in, week out. While the playmaking exploits of Christian Eriksen immediately spring to mind, the reliability of Leicester stopper Kasper Schmeichel in goal; the burgeoning potential of Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen and solidity of someone like Simon Kjaer offer a good mix of footballing intelligence.
Highly-rated Thomas Delaney – one of the stars of the Bundesliga season for Werder Bremen and veteran vice-captain William Kvist, also offer a buffer to release Eirksen.
Denmark were hardly prolific in qualifying – scoring just 20 times – and will need Yussuf Poulsen and Nicolai Jorgensen to produce the goods, supported by Celta Vigo’s Pione Sisto.
The Tottenham midfielder is set to have a busy summer, with speculation concerning his long-term future and a move to Barcelona likely to be the undercurrent to his World Cup. At the peak of the powers and the main man for the Danes.
The experienced Norwegian, who interestingly played for Manchester City and Norwich City in the 1980s, led the Scandinavian side to the finals through the playoffs, and should continue to make good strides with this team. Has reinvigorated the side since taking charge in 2015.
A leading presence at the back and calming influence on the pitch, the 29-year-old’s
experience is important but he will need to make sure he is fully fit having spent chunks of his season with Sevilla on the treatment table. He made only 18 starts in La Liga last term.
The 22-year-old powerful Chelsea centre-back is still learning his trade in defence but has become a regular in the Blues’ three-man back line. Seems to be growing in stature all the time and will relish his first major tournament, his adeptness in possession will be a vital asset.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
76 DEF 78 MID 76 ATT
World Cups competed at
5 (first in 1986)
World Cup record
P16, W8, D2, L6
P12, W7, D3, L2
Goalkeepers: K. Schmeichel (Leicester City), F. Ronnow (Brondby IF), J. Lossl (Huddersfield Town)
Defenders: H. Dalsgaard (Brentford), S. Kjaer (Sevilla), J. Stryger Larsen (Udinese), M. Jorgensen (Huddersfield Town), J. Vestergaard (Borussia Monchengladbach), A. Christensen (Chelsea), J. Knudsen (Ipswich)
Midfielders: W. Kvist (FC Kobenhavn), T. Delaney (Werder Bremen), C. Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur), L. Lerager (Bordeaux), M. Krohn-Dehli (Deportivo), L. Schone (Ajax), P. Sisto (Celta Vigo)
Forwards: N. Jorgensen (Feyenoord), Y. Poulsen (RB Leipzig), V. Fischer (FC Kobenhavn), K. Dolberg (Ajax), Andreas C. (Atalanta), M. Braithwaite (Bordeaux)
It’s possible the Danes could face Argentina in the second-round, which given the doubts around them, could yield a quarter final spot.