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   June 4, 2002 | 1039 IST



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Romantsev dare not fail

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Oleg Romantsev cares little for popular opinion, but there is one voice the Russia coach must answer when his side open their World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Wednesday.

"We are waiting for you to win," said Russian president Vladimir Putin recently, as he succeeded where many others have failed in securing an audience with Romantsev.

The brusque and secretive coach, who combines his national duties with club Spartak Moscow, appears to revel in a game of brinkmanship with the media which will come to a head at these finals.

While Russia succeed he remains untouchable, but failure to qualify from group H -- against the unfancied Africans, Japan and Belgium -- will spell disaster for his future.

The "Group of Life", as the weak section has been dubbed, has raised hopes in Russia that they will finally rediscover some of the glories enjoyed previously.

Since finishing fourth in the 1966 finals and reaching the quarter-finals in 1970 and the second round in 1986 as the Soviet Union, Russia's World Cup record is unenviable.

A first round exit in 1994, and failure to qualify in 1998, has increased the pressure on Romantsev to find a solution.

On paper, he has a number of talented players at his disposal who should prove too strong for a Tunisia side struggling to come to terms with a chaotic year.

Viktor Onopko, Alexander Mostovoi and Valery Karpin are expected to form the backbone of Russia's side in Kobe on Wednesday.

Mostovoi, the 33-year-old playmaker, will learn on the day of the game if he is to play after recovering from a thigh injury in time but, if he misses out, Marat Izmailov -- the 19-year-old golden boy of the Russian game -- could come in.


In attack, Vladimir Beschastnykh, whose goals propelled Russia through qualifying, needs to put his run of indifferent form behind him.

Goals have been rare indeed for Tunisia, who could not muster one during an awful African Nations Cup campaign earlier this year.

Coach Ammar Souayah has healed some of the wounds from the reign of predecessor Henri Michel, the Frenchman who left the position condemning Tunisia's World Cup chances.

But his task for the Russia game has not been made easier by the expected absence through injury of defender Emir Mkademi.

Unsurprisingly, then, hopes for Tunisia -- who became the first African nation to win a World Cup finals match when they beat Mexico in 1978 -- will rest on the shoulders of strike partnership Ziad Jaziri and Adel Sellimi.

"We are looking for some surprises from Jaziri," said assistant coach Khemais Laabidi.

"He is quick and we are expecting some goals from him. "Sellimi will be the focus and Jaziri will work off of him."

Probable teams:

Russia (4-4-2): 1-Ruslan Nigmatullin; 18-Dmitry Sennikov, 7-Viktor Onopko, 3-Yuri Nikiforov, 2-Yuri Kovtun; 9-Yegor Titov, 10-Alexander Mostovoi, 8-Valery Karpin, 4-Alexei Smertin; 11-Vladimir Beschastnykh, 22-Dmitry Sychev

Tunisia (4-4-2): 1-Ali Boumnijel; 2-Khaled Badra, 15-Radhi Jaidi, 14-Hamdi Marzouki, 17-Tarek Thabet; 18-Slim Ben Achour, 13-Riadh Bouazizi, 3-Zoubeir Baya, 10-Kais Ghodhbane; 5-Ziad Jaziri, 11-Adel Sellimi

Referee: Peter Prendergast (Jamaica)

Michael Ragoonath (Tri)
Paul Smith (New Zealand)

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