Russia's four World Cup players to watch: Golovin, Zobnin, Kuzyaev, Miranchuk
World Cup hosts Russia are approaching the tournament in the wake of some truly shambolic preparations.
Fans are pessimistic, and there is a fear that Stanislav Cherchesov's side will join South Africa and become the second World Cup hosts to fail to qualify from their group. Not everything is bleak though. While defence is their most problematic area, Cherchesov has numerous rising midfielders at his disposal.
Here are four youngsters who could save Russia this summer.
1. Aleksandr Golovin, CSKA Moscow
Aleksandr Golovin, aged 21, is the youngest player on the list, yet he is the most experienced. Sensationally called up for Russia's Euro 2016 squad by Leonid Slutsky, the CSKA starlet proceeded to start in a rather unfamiliar position in defensive midfield against both England and Slovakia, and was used as a substitute in the disastrous 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Wales.
While most of the pundits considered Golovin to be way too raw for such a role two years ago, Slutsky saw his immense potential. The coach later mentioned that he stayed at CSKA longer than expected in order to nurture the midfielder's talents. Slutsky gradually introduced Golovin into the starting lineup at the club in the beginning of 2016. By the time the coach resigned a year later, Golovin was already a key player for CSKA. Now it's impossible to imagine the national team without him as well.
He has been constantly linked with a move to Arsenal and Chelsea, and he is the type of player that won't look out of place at a top club. Industrious, visionary and technically sound, the Siberia-born prodigy is blessed with magnificent passing skills and can shoot from distance too. He is versatile, able to perform as a playmaker, a box-to-box player and on both wings. It is only logical that Cherchesov decided to build Russia's midfield around him.
Golovin had a very positive tournament at the 2017 Confederations Cup even though Russia made an early exit, playing every minute in the group stage and he was arguably the team's best performer. Now, after yet another inspirational season at CSKA, he will bring that experience and quality to the World Cup.
2. Roman Zobnin, Spartak Moscow
Few Spartak fans even noticed when the rather anonymous Roman Zobnin was signed from relegated Dynamo Moscow for €3 million in the summer of 2016.
Less than a year later, he was one of their greatest heroes as the Red and Whites celebrated their first championship title since 2001.
The midfielder blossomed under the guidance of Italian coach Massimo Carrera and became the heart and the lungs of Spartak's squad.
Modest and extremely hard working, Zobnin never stops running. He is able to perform in any position in midfield, and combines tireless defensive contribution with good attacking qualities. He might not be a prolific scorer, but the 24-year-old usually looks to move the ball forward rather than backwards, and many of Spartak's moves go through him.
Zobnin, 24, was supposed to star at the Confederations Cup last summer, but tore knee ligaments during the training camp ahead of the tournament. The injury prevented him from taking part in the most of Spartak's Champions League fixtures too, but he was back by November, and gradually got back into form just in time for the World Cup.
He is fresh and hungry for success, and you won't find a more motivated player.
3. Daler Kuzyaev, Zenit St Petersburg
Contrary to his contemporaries, Daler Kuzyaev was nowhere near the Confederations Cup squad a year ago.
He didn't have a single goal to his name during four seasons at Terek Grozny, and only became regular in the starting lineup during 2016-17. When Zenit signed him last summer, fans barely noticed the fact. And yet, by the end of the season it was obvious that Kuzyaev is one of Zenit's best-ever Russian purchases.
After scoring his first career goal on his Zenit debut, the midfielder instantly became integral to Roberto Mancini's plans. Kuzyaev loves to move the ball swiftly and precisely, has a magnificent first touch, and is able to slide past opponents as though they don't exist.
Even though Mancini frequently played him out of position on the right flank, or even as a right-back, he has consistently shone throughout the Russian season.
Kuzyaev, 25, finished the campaign with seven goals to his name, including a phenomenal screamer in the 5-1 demolition of Spartak, and his contribution to the national team could be crucial. Cherchesov gave Kuzyaev his international debut in October, and has trusted him ever since. Now, he might become the country's secret weapon.
4. Aleksey Miranchuk, Lokomotiv Moscow
Aleksey Miranchuk, 22, had long been considered one of Russia's most promising players since making his debut for Lokomotiv in 2013, at the age of 17.
His progress wasn't consistent, however, and he thought of leaving the club last summer after several disappointing campaigns. Although included in Russia's squad for the Confederations Cup, his contribution was limited to one very short substitute appearance.
Aleksey's identical twin brother Anton was then promoted to the first-team squad at Lokomotiv, and everything suddenly clicked. It remains a mystery why Anton, whose talent and style are very similar to those of his sibling, had to wait four years in the reserve side, but the 2017-18 season was phenomenal for both. They were absolutely crucial to Lokomotiv's sensational title triumph -- Aleksey contributed seven goals and three assists, while Anton provided four goals and five assists.
Both have rightfully been included in the World Cup squad, but Aleksey's chances of playing are higher because he is more experienced. He could be used on the right flank, as a playmaker, or as a second striker, and his gentle ball control and ability to send subtle through balls could be quite handy. He has finally found his feet just in time for the biggest tournament in the country's history.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.