NOVOGORSK, Russia: One of the architects of Russia’s World Cup bid thinks the host nation’s upcoming clash against Mohamed Salah’s Egypt will be their most important of the group stage.
Russia are coming off a rousing 5-0 opening match win over Saudi Arabia and are in prime position to qualify for the last 16 of a World Cup for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko told reporters after attending Sunday’s training sessions that players knew the importance of Tuesday’s showdown with the Pharaohs in Saint Petersburg.
“The second game will be our most important one in the group stage,” said Mutko.
“In the first match, everyone saw how much the players cared,” he said.
“If we play up to our level, I don’t see any problems.”
Mutko is the most powerful official in Russian football and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.
He oversaw a budget of more than $13 billion (11.2 billion euros) while spearheading preparations for Russia’s first World Cup at home.
But he was forced to quit as football federation president in December because of his alleged role in running a doping programme that got Russia banned from last winter’s Olympic Games.
Russian athletes who did take part competed under the neutral flag.
Mutko still serves on the federation’s executive committee but was also stripped of his sports brief in a government reshuffle last month.
Russia conclude the group phase against two-time world champions Uruguay on June 25.
Two victories from their first two matches would guarantee Russia’s qualification for the knockout stage and a possible matchup against either Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal of high-octane Spain.
A draw against Egypt would put extra pressure on Russia against Uruguay that they would rather avoid.
Russian players concede that Salah’s fitness will be a vital factor in Tuesday’s match.
AFP reporters at Egypt’s training camp in Grozny saw Salah on Saturday requiring the help of teammates to pull on a top over the shoulder he injured in Liverpool’s Champions League loss to Real Madrid.
Salah watched from the bench as Egypt succumbed to an 89th minute header by defender Jose Gimenez in a 1-0 loss to Uruguay on Friday.
The team doctor nevertheless pronounced Salah “100 percent ready” to play against Russia.—AFP