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Russia v New Zealand: Putin calls for warriors ahead of opener

As if there was not enough pressure on Russia ahead of the Confederations Cup, on the eve of their opening fixture against New Zealand president Vladimir Putin has demanded "better results" from the national team.

The eyes of the world will be on Russia ahead of the competition, the warm-up event to the World Cup, following disturbances from their fans during 2016.

But Putin hopes Stanislav Cherchesov's side can keep the focus on the pitch by bringing success for the home nation, starting with Saturday's Group A meeting with the Kiwis in Saint Petersburg.

Their preparations have been far from ideal, though, with just three wins from their last 15 games - a 3-0 victory over Hungary on June 5.

A 1-1 draw with Chile in the final practice match offered little in the way of encouragement, despite fighting back from a goal down, and Putin is expecting better.

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"Fans and those who love Russian football expect better results from our national team," said Putin ahead of the first match.

"We'll hope that the guys play with full commitment, like real warriors and athletes, to at least please the fans with their effort to win."

Facing OFC Nations Cup winners New Zealand offers a winnable start to the competition for Russia before clashes with seemingly tougher opponents in Portugal and Mexico.

The All Whites are undoubtedly the weakest team in the competition but they should fare better than Tahiti four years ago – the Pacific island nation conceding 24 goals in their three group games.

Striker Shane Smeltz acknowledges they arrive as massive underdogs but the 35-year-old believes they have the talent in their squad to cause a few surprises.

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"There are probably not too many people at this tournament who will expect us to do too much here," he told a media conference.

"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's views are shared by coach Anthony Hudson, the Englishman hoping to exceed expectations across their initial three games – having lost both of their warm-up matches against Northern Ireland and Belarus.

"Historically in tournaments, we haven't achieved a great deal so the expectation level probably isn't so high," he told RTE Sport.

"We have a responsibility to make the country proud in the way in which we play and what we put into the shirt.

"This tournament is very important for us. It's important on many levels."

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Key Opta Stats:

- This will be just the second meeting between Russia (including the Soviet Union) and New Zealand; they met in the 1982 World Cup with the Soviet Union winning 3-0.
- Russia, the hosts, will be participating in the Confederations Cup for the first time; three of the previous nine tournaments have been won by the host nation, including the last edition (Brazil, 2013).
- New Zealand are participating in their fourth Confederations Cup (1999, 2003 and 2009) although they are yet to win a match at the tournament (D1, L8).
- The All Whites have found the net just twice in the Confederations Cup, failing to score in seven of their nine games at the tournament, including each of the last four.
- New Zealand’s Chris Wood scored 27 goals in the Championship this season, four more than any other player in the second tier of English football.
- Igor Akinfeev kept 19 clean sheets in the Russian Premier League this season, no other ‘keeper kept more than 14.
- Stanislav Cherchesov will take charge of Russia in a tournament for the first time; he became Russia manager last year after completing a Polish league and cup double in his last managerial role with Legia Warsaw in 2015-16.
- New Zealand’s Anthony Hudson is the youngest manager at this year’s Confederations Cup, aged just 36; with the exception of Chile’s Juan Antonio Pizzi (49), all the other managers at the tournament are over 50.