Though everyone must wait to see what  Russia 2006 has in store, one thing is already clear: the hosts expect a great deal of their own team.

However, when asked about his team's prospects at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship, Russia's coach Valentin Grishin offers a cautious response. "Our main target is to qualify from our group, by finishing first or second," he told "I don't know what to expect from New Zealand, but I'd say our two main rivals in Group A are Australia and Brazil. Both of them went further than us at  Thailand 2004 and are teams to be respected."

The team's 'veteran' goalkeeper, Elvira Todua, is also cautiously optimistic: "I have very high hopes, of course. But the World Championship is tough, and being the hosts means that we're under added pressure." 

Fans of the host nation invariably demand great things from their side, and it is the accepted wisdom that the longer the 'home' team stays involved, the more likely the local public are to remain interested in the tournament for its entire duration. That means added responsibility, and following Russia's 4-0 defeat to Germany in the semi-final of this year's edition of the UEFA European Women's U-19 Championship, Grishin has worked hard to eliminate basic errors.

"We played two warm-up games against the Chinese," he explained. "We lost the first 2-1, but held them to a 0-0 draw in the second. We learnt our lessons from that first game, and we were all much happier with the performance in the second match. After all, China were runners-up at the last World Championship."

Russia's victory at the 2005 edition of the UEFA European Women's U-19 Championship in Hungary sparked huge interest in the women's game. However, doing well at such tournaments also has a price, claims Grishin: "We mustn't forget that this year's European Championship was only three weeks ago and meant another major exertion for 12 members of my squad. Luckily for us, the fifth round of the Russian league programme was postponed, which at least allowed the girls to get a bit of a break."

Overall, Grishin believes his squad is in good shape and expects to field almost his strongest team. "I'm only concerned about one position," says the Russian coach. "Our defensive midfielder Oksana Titova is almost certain to miss the game against Brazil. She was back in training on Wednesday, but she has missed one-and-a-half weeks through injury."  

Danilova in, Marta out
Brazil  will also be without an important player for the tournament curtain-raiser against  Russia  at St Petersburg's  Petrovsky Stadium  on 17 August. Marta, widely regarded as one of the biggest stars of women's football, has been refused permission to travel due to her club commitments with Umea of Sweden, and Grishin is in no doubt that this represents a major boost to his side's hopes of an opening match victory.

"Marta is a great player," he enthused. "She defeated entire teams on her own at Thailand 2004. If she was in the team, things would have been even harder for us."

However, Todua believes that Brazil are unlikely to be unduly affected by the loss of their star attacker. "Even without Marta, they have no shortage of good players," said the keeper. "In fact, being without their main player could make the Brazilians even stronger as a unit."

At Thailand 2004, Russia faced Brazil at the quarter-final stage in a hugely entertaining encounter that ended in a 4-2 extra-time victory for the South Americans. So how are the hosts preparing for the Brazilians this time? "Our main strength will be our teamwork," says Grishin "And don't forget that in Thailand we didn't have Elena Danilova in attack, and she is another player who is worth almost half a team on her own."

Todua, one of the national team's longest-serving players, also has a theory about how to tackle the Auriverde. She said: "If we start without any real purpose, then we won't get anything out of the game. But if we use the ball properly, get our short and medium range passing going, and make use of the spaces, it could be different.

"The main thing is that we play as a team. We'll need total commitment from every player. And of course we want to play some entertaining football and please the fans. That's the most important thing."