KEIR RADNEDGE in ST PETERSBURG: Russia, having achieved the conquest of New Zealand, are in full pursuit of a love affair at the Confederations Cup.
This is how man of the match Fedor Smolov poetically described the national team’s appeal to the heart of this nation of 145m as long as campaign continues through the next fortnight.
Russia, with a new team built around a handful of the failed survivors from the finals of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship, opened the 2018 World Cup warm-up tournament by defeating modest New Zealand 2-0 on Krestovsky Island in St Petersburg.
Manager Stanislav Cherchesov’s men were well worth their victory albeit they owed their opening strike to an own goal on the halfhour from the All White’s defender Michael Boxall. Smolov stabbed the other from close range midway through the second half.
Later Smolov, the Krasnodar centre-forward who has been linked with Borussia Dortmund, said: “The most important thing for us was to win and put on a good performance.”
Then, summing up the squad’s wider ambition, Smolov added: “It’s very important for us to make our supporters and people throughout the country fall in love with the national team during this Confederations Cup.”
Cherchesov, a one-time international goalkeeper, was equally content.
He said: “This was a first game and people were nervous, they were expecting a lot. Russia had to win and New Zealand wanted to win this first match so we were coming from opposite directions. We have achieved a good result and sometimes even a good game.”
Diplomatically, Cherchesov ascribed a factor in victory as having been the tournament-opening address delivered by President Vladimir Putin while the players were lined up before kickoff.
Cherchesov said: ” We are professional, we prepared properly and New Zealand played the game we expected . . . but when the president of your country comes out to make such a speech it motivated us because of the additional responsibility and I believe we coped with our task.”
Anthony Hudson, the one-time Tottenham reserves coach who now manages Oceania champions New Zealand, was disappointed at the outcome, while acknowledging the difficulty of the task at hand in playing the hosts in a tournament opener.
Hudson said: “We don’t get a lot of opportunities to play against top teams so this was an unbelievable experience and we will learn a lot from this game.
“We wanted a better result so we are slightly deflated. We were playing against a strong Russian team who were good, positive and caused us problems. But we showed a lot of spirit so there were plenty of positives to take into the next game.”
Portugal face Mexico in the next Group A game with Cameroon facing Chile at Moscow Spartak to open Group B.
** Russian fans leader Alexander Shprygin was barred from attending the tournament when his Fan-ID was cancelled shortly before the Opening Match. Shprygin was deported from France last year after hooligan violence around Russia’s Euro 2016 tie against England in Marseille.