Hosts Russia will be aiming to get their FIFA 2017 Confederations Cup campaign off to a winning start against New Zealand in the tournament’s opening game in St. Petersburg on Saturday.
Despite being Confederations Cup debutants, Russia go into the game as strong favorites, given their home advantage and higher FIFA ranking.
Manager Stanislav Cherchesov has set about creating a new-look team since the hugely disappointing Euro 2016 campaign, which saw the team finish with just one point from three group games.
Familiar faces such as the Berezutsky brothers, Vasily and Aleksey, and fellow defender Sergey Ignashevich – all previously ever-presents in the team – have now made way.
In their place, 53-year-old Cherchesov has put his faith in exciting young talent such as CSKA Moscow midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, 21, Lokomotiv Moscow midfielder Aleksey Miranchuk, also 21, and Spartak Moscow defender Georgy Dzhikya, 23.
He’s also brought into the team more senior players previously only on the fringes of the national set-up. That includes CSKA defender Viktor Vasin, 28, who has six caps, and 32-year-old striker Rostov Aleksandr Bukharov – recalled by Cherchesov in March after a six-year absence from the national team.
Russia, ranked 63rd in the world by FIFA, head into the game against the All Whites on the back of promising warm-up games against Hungary, where they won 3-0, and Chile, where they held their fellow Confed Cup participants to a 1-1 draw.
Cherchesov played a 5-4-1 formation in the game against the Copa America champions, deploying Krasnodar marksman Fedor Smolov as a loan striker, supported by forward runs from Golovin and Alexander Samedov, but he may be tempted to go for an even more attacking line-up and deploy two up front against New Zealand.
Interestingly, Russia are the only side at the tournament whose squad includes all domestic-based players, with five players coming from newly-crowned Russian Premier League team Spartak Moscow.
The 'All Whites' – ranked 95th in the world – are undoubtedly the underdogs going into the game against the hosts, but are more than capable of pulling off a shock.
Young manager Anthony Hudson, a 36-year-old Englishman, is already making a name for himself in international football and has brought a new attacking ethos to the team, deploying a number of exciting young players.
While New Zealand failed to find the net in their two main Confed Cup warm-up games, in which they suffered 1-0 defeats against both Northern Ireland and Belarus, the All Whites possess a prolific striker in Chris Wood.
The Leeds United frontman was the top scorer in England’s second-tier championship last season, and has bagged 19 goals in 48 appearances for his country. He will be stand-in skipper at the Confederations Cup for the injured Winston Reid, and he’s also the youngest player ever to have appeared at the Tournament of Champions, turning out for New Zealand aged just 17 in South Africa in 2009.
Indeed, Russia 2017 will be New Zealand’s fourth Confed Cup campaign, although few of the current squad played in South Africa in 2009, or the subsequent World Cup in 2010.
The current teams boasts some exciting young talent, not least 22-year-old Ryan Thomas, who plays his club football at Dutch Eredivisie team PEC Zwolle.
Fellow youngster Tom Doyle, a left-back for Wellington Phoenix, the country’s only professional team, feels that the young Kiwi stars could see their careers take off after Russia.
“This could be a life-changing event for all of the players here,” Doyle said ahead of the tournament. “It is a great way for the guys to be seen on the international stage against some of the best players in the world.”
While the Confed Cup will be a big step up for the All Whites, as they mainly play Pacific Island nations in World Cup qualifying, they do not seem fazed.
Coach Hudson believes the team can achieve “something significant” in Russia, saying in a Friday morning press conference: "There is no point in us being here if we're not trying to win, so we are trying to beat Russia and that's it. We know they are strong but we have no fear of them."
Veteran striker Shane Smeltz – scorer of perhaps the team’s most famous goal in a 1-1 World Cup draw with then-champions Italy in 2010 – is also sure the team can belie their underdogs tag.
“I'm sure that everyone is expecting Russia to win that first game, but internally we have our own ambition and our own focus and we obviously hope to fulfil that," Smeltz said in the build-up to the Russia game.
Hudson set up the team in a 4-4-2 formation against Belarus in their final warm-up game, with Smeltz and Wood up front, and while he might adopt a more conservative approach against Russia, he’s expected to encourage Thomas and fellow midfielder Marco Rojas – nicknamed ‘the Kiwi Messi’ – to attack when possible.
The two nations have only ever met once before, at the 1982 World Cup, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union. On that occasion the Soviets ran out 3-0 winners.
The latest encounter on Saturday at Saint Petersburg Stadium will be an intriguing start to what promises to be a fantastic tournament.
FIFA Confederations Cup Group A fixtures
Russia v New Zealand, Saint Petersburg Stadium, Saturday June 17, 18:00 (Moscow time)
Portugal versus Mexico, Kazan Arena, Sunday June 18, 18:00
Russia versus Portugal, Spartak Stadium, Moscow, Wednesday June 21, 18:00
Mexico versus New Zealand, Fisht Stadium, Sochi, Wednesday June 21, 21:00
New Zealand versus Portugal, Saint Petersburg Stadium, Saturday June 24, 18:00
Mexico versus Russia, Kazan Arena, Saturday June 24, 18:00