Russia suffered a 1-0 defeat away to Austria on Wednesday, extending the team’s winless run to six matches and leaving them desperate to find momentum before they open their World Cup campaign on June 14.
Alessandro Schopf's strike on 28 minutes was enough to hand victory to Austria, who have not qualified for this summer’s World Cup.
Russia looked desperately short of attacking threat in a game in which they failed to register a single shot on target.
The defeat in Innsbruck means Russia have not won since a 4-2 victory against South Korea last autumn, and have lost nine out of the 20 games played under head coach Stanislav Cherchesov since he took charge in the wake of the Euro 2016 disaster.
Russia face Turkey in their final World Cup warm-up game in Moscow on June 5 in dire need of a win to boost confidence ahead of their opening World Cup game against Saudi Arabia in two weeks’ time.
Wednesday’s encounter against Austria saw Cherchesov name a starting 11 including many of the players expected to line up against the Saudis, with veteran Sergei Ignashevich starting in defense after his recall to the national team.
At the age of 38 years and 320 days old, Ignashevich became Russia’s oldest ever international, overtaking goalkeeping great Lev Yashin, although the experienced defender’s inclusion in the team signaled the paucity of options for Cherchesov as much as the CSKA player’s remarkable longevity.
Cherchesov changed from his usual 3-5-2 system to a 4-4-2, but the switch proved ineffective as Russia offered little danger going forward. At the back they struggled to contain Austria’s Marko Arnautovic, who was being watched by Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho amid reports of a big-money summer move for the forward.
After the game Cherchesov said the opposition had been "fresher" than his team, something that could be attributed to Russia's heavy training regime in Austria ahead of the World Cup. But the defeat has added to the pressure on the manager, and further exposed what many see as a painful lack of progress going into the home World Cup.
While injury has deprived Russia of first-choice center-backs Georgiy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin, as well as forward Aleksandr Kokorin, Cherchesov has come under fire for appearing uncertain over the personnel to replace them and the system best suited to the team.
The 54-year-old coach has also been criticized for leaving midfielder Igor Denisov out of the squad, over a row stretching back to the pair’s days at Dynamo Moscow.
Denisov, 34, has been a driving force in Lokomotiv Moscow’s title win this season, and many believe the Russian midfield would welcome his experience and grit to complement talented youngster Aleksandr Golovin, who is certain to start this summer.
Many fans were prepared to give Russia the benefit of the doubt following heavy friendly defeats against heavyweights Brazil and France in March, in the expectation of an improvement against more evenly matched opposition in the form of Austria and Turkey.
But that did not materialize against Austria – leading to a scathing response from the national press, while former international Roman Pavlyuchenko said the players "looked as if they were seeing each other for the first time."
The opening game against the Saudis had appeared a banker for Russia before sterner tests against Egypt and in particular Uruguay.
But in contrast to Russia, the Saudi team put in a spirited performance in a 2-1 friendly defeat against Italy earlier this week, and now appear a much more difficult prospect for Cherchesov and his men.
All of that means the game against Turkey on June 5 has taken on even more importance, with Cherchesov running out of time to find solutions to many questions he’s faced with.