By Dmitriy Rogovitskiy

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Alarm bells are ringing loudly in Russia 18 months before the country hosts the World Cup after their team crashed to a morale-shattering loss to a Qatar side ranked 91st in the world.

Russia endured a dismal European Championship this year in France where violent rampages by their fans and the team's inept performances on the pitch made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Just when Russian fans thought things could not get any worse, they have – with humbling defeats by Costa Rica and Qatar, the country that will host the 2022 World Cup.

"There is no need to dramatize the situation and make damning predictions," Vyacheslav Koloskov, the honorary president of the Russian Football Union (RFU), told Reuters by telephone.

With next year's Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup drawing ever closer, Russia is facing one of its biggest footballing crises since gaining independence from the Soviet Union.

Head coach Stanislav Cherchesov was handed the task of leading the Russian team to their home World Cup. His predecessor Leonid Slutskiy declined the offer of a new contract after Russia finished bottom of their group in the European Championship with one point from three games.

Things have been difficult for Cherchesov who is trying to bring much needed youth into an aging squad, which has already lost veteran stalwarts Sergei Iganashevich and Roman Shirokov.

Russia were one of the oldest teams at Euro 2016 but results have not improved and they have slipped to 53rd in the world rankings.

Around four years ago under Dutch manager Dick Advocaat, the Russians were ranked ninth in the world. Their best position since gaining independence was in 1996 when they rose to third in the rankings.

"We were missing eight players from the first training camp. This is almost a whole team," Cherchesov said after the loss in Qatar on Thursday.

"I don't want to talk about injuries and problems where there aren't any to look for. I don't want to look for excuses. There are no excuses," he added.

   

STRONG CRITICISM

Russian media have ruthlessly laid into the national side and the criticism is now even stronger than it was after the European Championship, when almost a million people signed a petition calling for the team to be disbanded.

"Now you really could send the national team scattering," the 1972 Soviet footballer of the year Yevgeny Lovchev wrote in his column for the Sovetsky Sport newspaper.

"They are well fed, pleased with themselves and rotten to the core. It is difficult to watch this farce," the 67-year-old added.

Things have not always been so bad for Russia. Under Guus Hiddink, the team captivated audiences with an exciting brand of attacking football as they reached the Euro 2008 semi-finals – their best result since independence.

Before the collapse of communism, the Soviet Union team were a footballing powerhouse. They won the first European Championship in 1960 and six years later finished fourth in the World Cup, the Soviet Union and Russia's best performance in world football's most prestigious competition.

The people governing Russian football are remaining calm.

"We played with an experimental side against Qatar. There were young defenders, new tactics and hot weather," Koloskov said.

"Cherchesov is a strong and experienced coach. He has already seen a lot of players and now needs to end his search and decide on 23-25 members who will prepare for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup," he added.

"I don't have any doubts that in 2018 we will finish either first or second in the group and qualify for the knockout stages," he added.

Russia play Romania in Grozny, Chechnya on Tuesday and if they lose they will equal an unwanted record dating back to 1998.

Russia lost seven matches that year. They have already lost six in 2016.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)