Hiddink record on the line against Slovenia

MOSCOW - Guus Hiddink will put his proud coaching record on the line when he leads Russia into the World Cup play-off first leg against Slovenia on Saturday.

Hiddink, who celebrated his 63rd birthday last Sunday, has never failed to guide his teams to a major tournament.

The Dutchman led his native Netherlands to the 1998 World Cup, then repeated the feat with Australia in 2006 before steering Russia to the 2008 Euro finals, where they surprisingly reached the semi-finals for their best showing in 20 years.

"I don't worry about personal records," said Hiddink, who also led co-hosts South Korea to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals.

"We have a much bigger goal to achieve and must do all we can and even more to qualify for South Africa."

The two teams face off again in the return leg in Maribor next Wednesday with the winner booking a place in next year's finals.

Russia captain Andrei Arshavin said he felt relieved after being drawn against a team ranked 49th by FIFA, but Hiddink was wary of the Slovenians.

"Slovenia have one of the best defences as they conceded only four goals in 10 World Cup qualifiers," he said.

"We must not underestimate our opponents."


Hiddink could be without Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov, who is nursing a sore knee, while Tottenham Hotspur striker Roman Pavlyuchenko could also miss out as he has not seen much action for his London club in recent weeks.

Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek hopes to field his strongest team in Moscow with second-choice goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic the only doubt after just coming back from a broken finger.

"Certainly Russia are big favourites but we would not be intimidated," Kek was quoted as saying by local media.

The Russians are seeking their 10th World Cup appearance, including the days of the Soviet Union, while Slovenia's only previous showing at soccer's greatest spectacle came in 2002.

The Russians feel the artificial pitch at Luzhniki stadium should give the home team an added edge, although the slick surface did not help them in their last encounter there when they lost 1-0 to Germany in October's World Cup qualifier.

Russia also suffered a defeat the last time they met Slovenia, going down 2-1 in a 2002 World Cup qualifier.

Afterwards, the Russians blamed English referee Graham Poll for awarding Slovenia a controversial last-minute penalty that decided the outcome.

"I vaguely remember that game," said Arshavin in reference to the September 2001 match in Ljubljana. "In any case, it was a long time ago and should have no effect on Saturday."

Probable line-ups:

Russia: Igor Akinfeyev; Alexander Anyukov, Sergei Ignashevich, Vasily Berezutsky, Renat Yanbayev; Igor Denisov, Igor Semshov, Vladimir Bystrov, Konstantin Zyryanov; Alexander Kerzhakov, Andrei Arshavin.

Slovenia: Samir Handanovic; Miso Brecko, Bostjan Cesar, Marko Suler, Bojan Jokic; Aleksander Radosavljevic, Robert Koren, Andraz Kirm; Valter Birsa, Milivoje Novakovic, Zlatko Dedic.

Referee: Claus Bo Larsen (Denmark).