Russia boss juggles expectations, ageing squad and growing angst

Alexandre FEDORETS
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Just two months ahead of the Confederations Cup, Russia national football coach Stanislav Cherchesov is struggling to get his team firing

When he took over as Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov was handed the mammoth task of transforming a failing and ageing squad into challengers for the country's first home World Cup in 2018.

But just two months ahead of the Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal in Russia, he is struggling to get his team firing after a string of uninspiring results.

"The team is undergoing a generational change," the brusque 53-year-old told AFP in an interview.

"Our fans want to see a squad with a strong character and we demand our players concentrate and work flat-out in every single match."

The former Spartak and Dynamo Moscow coach took the reins after Russia crashed out of Euro 2016 without a win and their fans in disgrace after running battles with England supporters in Marseille.

In the wake of the disastrous tournament the ex-international goalkeeper -- known as a tough disciplinarian -- set out radically overhauling the squad and shipping out an array of players past their prime.

Only four of those who featured at the Euros in France were starters in Russia's latest friendly, against Belgium in March at Sochi's Fisht arena.

But Cherchesov's new charges are yet to convince.

Against Belgium they clawed back two goals to draw 3-3 but that followed a humiliating 2-0 home defeat to the Ivory Coast -- Russia's first loss to an African team.

Fed-up fans made their feelings known and the Russians trudged off the field in Krasnodar with whistles and jeers ringing in their ears.

"I have to work with the players that I currently have," Cherchesov said. "There is nowhere I can get any others from."

Respected football writer Igor Rabiner, of the Sport Express newspaper, said the coach's no-nonsense approach was needed to give Russia's footballers a much-needed jolt, but agreed Cherchesov did not have much to work with.

"Cherchesov is definitely one of Russia's top coaches," Rabiner told AFP.

"There's a very limited choice of players in Russia and the managers that have recently worked here, including Italian guru Fabio Capello and Russia's top coach Leonid Slutsky, all failed to achieve success."

- Becoming a team -

Since taking over there are only glimmers to suggest that Cherchesov -- who also won the Polish league with Legia Warsaw -- will be the one to lift Russia out of the doldrums and avoid humiliation on home soil.

Under his tenure the team have only managed to chalk up two victories from seven friendlies.

But the moustachioed manager is putting a brave face on it and insists that gaining experience ahead of the World Cup is for now far more important than the results.

Cherchesov refuses to talk effusively about individual players -- it does not fit in with his team philosophy -- and he weighs every word carefully before answering.

"We have a set of young players who are improving from match to match," the coach said.

He mentioned goalkeeper Marinato Guilherme, Mario Fernandes the full-back and Roman Neustadter -- their names give the clue away.

"We didn't ask them to receive Russian passports, it was their desire, but now they're candidates like the others."

Cherchesov refused to close the door on seasoned campaigners such as Sergei Ignashevich (aged 37) and Vasily Berezutsky (34), whose international careers are on hold.

"We watch all of them closely," he said, stressing: "We need to become a team with a capital T."

Poor form has left Russia ranked 61 by FIFA just two months before the country welcomes world champions Germany and the rest for the Confederations Cup.

Cherchesov insists they will not be happy just to make up the numbers this year or when it really matters at the World Cup.

"If there's a cup at stake that means we should contend for it," he said.

"And our team will also be in the hunt for the prize."