World Cup 2018 team preview: Russia might not be as awful as you think

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a week to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. First up in Group A are the hosts.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group A: 44.4%
Odds to advance: 75%
Odds to win World Cup: 2.4%
Elo rank: 45
Yahoo Sports power rank: 25

Our writers say: FIFA ranks the home team 65th in the world, behind the likes of Albania, Haiti and Burkina Faso. As such, simply emerging from their cupcake group would be a triumph, not least because it would spare Russia the embarrassment of becoming just the second host nation not to advance to the knockout stage. Doug McIntyre

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Aleksandr Golovin must live up to the hype for Russia to succeed on home soil at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 11th (7 as Soviet Union)
Best World Cup finish: 4th place as Soviet Union (1966)
2014 finish: Group stage (0-2-1)
Qualifying: Qualified automatically as host
Schedule: Saudi Arabia (Thursday, June 14, 11 a.m., Fox), Egypt (Tuesday, June 19, 2 p.m., Fox), Uruguay (Monday, June 25, 10 a.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group A preview]

Squad

Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov
Captain: Igor Akinfeev (G)
Top players: Aleksandr Golovin (M), Fyodor Smolov (F)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: There is, contrary to popular belief, quite a bit of youthful or prime-age attacking talent in this Russia team. On paper, it’s absolutely enough to outmatch the likes of Saudi Arabia. In addition to Golovin and Smolov, Aleksei Miranchuk and Alan Dzagoev can make plays in the final third.

Why they’ll lose games: Russia isn’t exactly a free-flowing attacking unit. It doesn’t quite know what exactly it is, though, because its personnel doesn’t jibe with its identity. Successful past iterations have been built on defensive rigidity. It looks like this one will be, too. It has to come out of its shell to play to the strengths of those attackers, but in doing so, it exposes a defense that will be either over the hill, inexperienced or both. Two projected starters at center back, Georgy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin, have been lost to knee injuries.

How they’ll play: It’ll likely be three/five at the back – three center backs, two wingbacks – with the configuration in front of the defense dependent on opponent. Cherchesov will craft his approach game by game as well, giving Golovin and other midfielders freedom against inferior foes, but sitting in a low block against the world’s best.

Projected lineup (5-3-1-1): Igor Akinfeev; Aleksandr Samedov, Vladimir Granat, Ilya Kutepov, Fyodor Kudryashov, Yuri Zhirkov; Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev; Aleksei Miranchuk; Fyodor Smolov.

In light of the injury crisis at the back, 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich came out of international retirement to join the squad, and has been thrown right into the starting lineup in two warmup friendlies. He could very well take the place of Granat, Kutepov or Kudryashov above.

There are either/or decisions in midfield as well. Zhirkov is the likely pick on the left, but could be displaced by Igor Smolnikov. Mario Fernandes vs. Samedov is a choice between talent and experience on the right. In the middle, Golovin’s place is the only one that’s guaranteed. The other two will be some combination of Dzagoev, Zobnin and Daler Kuzyaev.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: All 23 members of the 2014 World Cup squad are under investigation for doping, and have been since December 2016. That’s when, in the wake of Part II of the McLaren Report, the World Anti-Doping Agency notified FIFA that 34 soccer doping samples might have been tampered with. FIFA, amid criticism, claimed it is in pursuit of evidence. But of course, there was never any chance one of the most corrupt governing bodies in sport would punish Russia before it hosted that governing body’s banner event. And a few weeks before kickoff, FIFA cleared the entire Russian squad, saying it had found “insufficient evidence.”

Why to root for them: Um … Perhaps, in a vacuum, because World Cups are more fun when the hosts are having fun? That’s all we got.

Why to root against them: Because Vladimir Putin will be happy if they win.

If you’re going to watch one game … It has to be the opener. Not because it’ll be a particularly entertaining game, but because missing a World Cup opener as a soccer fan is heresy.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

More World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
2018 World Cup preview hub
• Ranking the top 100 players at the World Cup
FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
A tactical guide to the 2018 World Cup
How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit