THE Confederations Cup kicks-off on Saturday and we asked international football analyst Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) for his thoughts on the Group A curtain-raiser between Russia and New Zealand.
Russia v New Zealand | Saturday 16:00 | ITV4
The 2017 Confederations Cup kicks-off in St Petersburg on Saturday – with host nation Russia due to face New Zealand in the curtain-raiser of the competition.
This tournament represents Russia’s final competitive fixtures before next summer’s World Cup and the Sbornaya will be looking to build some momentum whilst also making a positive impression on home turf this summer.
Concern surrounding the Russian World Cup bid, its geopolitics, worker safety and hooliganism dominate the headlines while its struggling national team kills time as an automatic qualifier.
The Sbornaya, which is comprised entirely of domestic talent and has only one player who’s scored more than five international goals, are desperate to avoid a humiliating early exit following a disastrous Euro 2016 under the guidance of Leonid Slutsky.
A new dawn under Cherchesov
Former international goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov is the new man in the hot-seat and it took time for the 53 year-old to stamp his authority on the side. Russia bagged a sole success in his first four fixtures – a sequence of results that included a humiliating 2-1 reverse at the hands of Qatar and resulted in calls for him to step down.
And although the hosts have claimed only three triumphs in 15, optimists will point towards their improved recent results. A stoppage-time strike by Aleksandr Bukharov earned a 3-3 draw with Belgium in March, Hungary were beaten 3-0 in Budapest at the start of the month and Viktor Vasin equalised in last week’s 1-1 draw against Chile.
Hosts nations have often enjoyed plenty of success at the Confederations Cup but the likes of Brazil (2013) and France (2003) were significantly stronger sides than this Russian outfit, while Mexico in 1999 also had a number of good players and the benefit of more extreme conditions.
Russia’s depleted tools
The tools available to Cherchesov remain more workmanlike than inspiring, and he has been dealt a bad hand with several key injuries. Striker Artem Dzyuba, playmaker Alan Dzagoev and midfielder Roman Zobnin are particularly big blows.
The Russian boss favours a three at the back system but he’s often rotated his roster so it can be hard to pinpoint a starting XI. However, Krasnodar striker Fyodor Smolov is coming off two straight domestic Golden Boot wins and is a certain starter in the Sbornaya attack.
New Zealand eager to defy doubters
Rank outsiders New Zealand are also expected to line up with a back-three with highly-rated coach Anthony Hudson eager for his underdogs to defy the doubters this summer.
The All Whites have made three previous Confederations Cup appearances and picked up a solitary point, scoring only twice across their nine matches. And last year’s OFN Nations Cup triumph – which secured their trip to Russia – shows a narrow 1-0 defeat of New Caledonia in the semi-finals and penalties were then needed to edge out Papua New Guinea after no goals in normal or extra time.
It’s not ideal but the Kiwis shouldn’t be completely written off – they’re no pushovers. The Oceania champions may have suffered back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Northern Ireland and Belarus in their final warm-up games but Hudson’s cultivated a youthful squad that’s packed with energy, pace and power.
An attack-minded approach
The English coach is famous in the region for attacking football and his admiration for a high-pressing game. Although New Zealand have failed to score in four of their last five defeats, Hudson’s men won’t sit back with 10 men behind the ball – they’ll look to get forward and test Russia.
Hudson’s remarked he’d rather lose 3-0 and have a go rather than a narrow 1-0 where his charges barely make their mark and in captain Chris Wood, plus tricky wingers Marco Rojas and Kosta Barbarouses they possess players capable of providing the ammunition when possession is turned over.
However, defence could prove the Kiwis undoing. Goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic plays in Germany’s fourth-tier and defenders Andrew Durante, Tom Doyle, Storm Roux and Tommy Smith are all arriving off poor seasons and form – with Winston Reid absent, the All Whites could struggle at the back.
The betting angles
Results say New Zealand have only lost four matches since the start of 2015 but the majority of those matches came against lesser opposition and you have to go back to May 2010 to find the last time a Kiwi team beat a European nation.
However, performances against Mexico (1-2) and USA (1-1) encouraged at the back end of 2016 and this is arguably the underdogs best opportunity to pick up points in Group A. I certainly don’t expect the All Whites to waiver and this encounter might not be as straightforward as the odds suggest.
It’s difficult to place a large amount of faith in Russia at 1/3 (Paddy Power) quotes and so instead I’m going to support two against-the-grain selections at generous prices for Saturday’s showdown.
Both Teams To Score is too big to ignore at 13/8 (Bet365). I’ve already outlined New Zealand’s attacking intent and it’s worth noting the hosts have shipped 10 goals in their last five internationals as they look to bed in a brand new defence without veterans Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutsky brothers.
And I’m also going to add the Russian win alongside Both Teams To Score at a hunky 29/10 (888). Since 2010 the only wins the Kiwis have recorded when excluding Oceania opposition have come against Oman, Saudi Arabia and Honduras and their treacherous backline just isn’t good enough to compete.