MOSCOW - It is hard to say that Moscow, a city of 12 million residents, was at fever pitch yesterday ahead of Saturday's Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel. As of last night, only 10,000 tickets had been sold for the match - less than for an average league encounter. Perhaps the weather is depressing the Russian fans. Or perhaps the lack of interest stems from Guus Hiddink's team's less than impressive performance so far.
Gray skies and a constant drizzle are nothing compared to the thunderstorm that Hiddink can expect if Russia comes away from Saturday's match with anything less than three points.
Russian journalists have been sharpening their pencils, and their knives, and waiting in the aisles are the Russian coaches and functionaries who from the start objected to the appointment of a foreign manager. Nobody will be surprised to see CSKA Moscow coach Valery Gazzayev smiling on Saturday night if Russia does not win.
Russian commentators believe that Hiddink will play all out for a win on Saturday. With Spartak Moscow's Roman Pavlyuchenko injured, Hiddink will probably play Tom Tomsk's Pavel Pogrebnyak as a lone striker, with Zenit St. Petersburg's Andrei Arshavin on the left and Lokomotiv Moscow's Marat Izmailov on the right, and Spartak captain Igor Titov orchestrating the Russian front line.
Hiddink's offensive lineup will come at the expense of his back line, which will consist of three CSKA Moscow defenders backed by another of the club's players, defensive midfielder Yevgeny Aldonin.
Hiddink canceled last night's training session, saying he preferred to give his players an opportunity to rest.
Marat Izmailov said that the team had not seen any videos of Israel in action. However, that is not unusual for the Dutch coach, who prefers concentrating on his own preparations to engaging in tactical briefings.
Veteran Soviet star Nikita Simonian, who played against Israel in an Olympic qualifier in 1956, flattered Dror Kashtan's team, but pointed out that in his day, defeat to Israel was unimaginable.
Times have changed, however, and if Hiddink's team does slip up tomorrow, it will not be an earth-shaking surprise.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now