The 2018 FIFA World Cup will get underway on Thursday afternoon when host nation Russia take on Saudi Arabia in their Group A encounter at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
While it is by no means the most glamorous opening game in World Cup history, there will still be plenty of intrigue around the match as the two lowest-ranked teams at the tournament go head to head to kick off the 21st edition of the biggest spectacle in football.
Following all of the off-field distractions surrounding the 2018 World Cup – from the allegations of bribery and corruption in initially being awarded the tournament to concerns over hooliganism and fan safety – the gaze of the world will finally switch to matters on the field on Thursday.
Russia go into their own tournament as the lowest-ranked nation according to the latest FIFA standings, which places them as the 70th-best team in the world, behind the likes of Burkina Faso, Mali and the Cape Verde Islands.
However, a lack of competitive fixtures due to qualifying automatically as hosts has contributed to their descent down the rankings, so manager Stanislav Cherchesov will be paying minimal attention to the unwanted tag of being ‘officially’ the worst team at the tournament.
There is also the added bonus that Russia are facing Saudi Arabia – ranked just three places above them – in their opening game, which will give them added hope of getting their tournament off to a positive start.
The draw could have been worse for the hosts after they were placed in Group A alongside Egypt and Uruguay – teams they will face in their second and third matches respectively – but they will still be the underdogs given the star quality those two teams can boast, namely Mohamed Salah for Egypt and Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and Uruguay.
Victory in this opener could be crucial for Russia’s chances, then, and so could their status as the host nation; over the past 20 years, four of the six host nations have made it all the way to the semi-finals at least.
Granted, those include the likes of France, Germany and Brazil, but Russia can certainly take great inspiration from South Korea’s memorable run to the semi-finals on home soil 16 years ago.
A similar performance from the hosts this summer would arguably be just as big a shock, particularly considering Russia’s form heading into the tournament, which has seen them fail to win in their last seven matches stretching back to October.
Some concessions can be made considering Cherchesov’s side have faced the likes of Argentina, Spain, Brazil and France during that time – even coming away with a draw against Spain – but defeat to Austria and a draw against Turkey in their most recent outings will not have restored any confidence amongst the fans.
The mini World Cup trial run that is the Confederations Cup did not go well for Russia last summer either, with the hosts crashing out in the group stages in what was their last taste of competitive action.
Russia won their opening group game on that occasion, but subsequently lost to Portugal and Mexico to fall at the first hurdle, and there will be plenty expecting a similar story this summer.
Such a return would still be an improvement on their 2014 World Cup campaign, but a group-stage exit would be far from a satisfactory performance for a team carrying the weight of the world’s biggest nation on their shoulders.
For Saudi Arabia, tt has been a 12-year wait for them to grace the World Cup again since their most recent qualification in 2006, and the new crop of players will be desperate to emulate a squad which reached the competition four times in a row from 1994 to 2006.
However, since reaching the last 16 on their tournament debut in 1994 Saudi Arabia have won none and lost seven of their subsequent nine World Cup matches, including a 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Germany in 2002.
Such a convincing defeat is unlikely this time around, but the Saudis certainly have a difficult task to make it any further than the groups having been drawn alongside the hosts and two teams with genuine world-class talents.
Perhaps their main hope lies with their manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, who incredibly became the third man to take charge of the national team in as many months when he was handed the reins in November.
Bert van Marwijk failed to agree terms over a new deal despite leading the team to the World Cup and was subsequently replaced by Edgardo Bauza, who lasted just five matches before being given his marching orders.
Van Marwijk – who will instead lead Australia, the team Saudi Arabia beat to automatic World Cup qualification, into the tournament – then turned down the chance to return as manager before Saudi Arabia turned to Pizzi, who himself had failed to guide Chile to Russia when they missed out on the final day of South American qualifying.
Such a managerial merry-go-round is certainly not ideal prior to a World Cup campaign, but Pizzi does have a history of underdog success at international level, having guided Chile to the Copa America title in 2016 and the Confederations Cup final on Russian soil just last year.
Pizzi’s side have been busy in World Cup year too, playing nine matches already in 2018 but only winning three of those – against Moldova, Algeria and Greece, none of whom will be in Russia.
The Green Falcons will go into their opening match on the back of three successive defeats – their worst run of form since January 2015 – although in Russia they should face opposition less daunting than Italy, Peru and world champions Germany.
Indeed, despite the results going against them, Saudi Arabia may have been encouraged by that latter result in particular, with Germany only scraping a 2-1 win in Leverkusen.
However, there have been defeats to the likes of Oman, Iraq and Bulgaria since booking their place at the World Cup, which occurred courtesy of a 1-0 win over Japan in the final round of Asian qualifying to hold off the challenge of Australia.
Denis Glushakov was the most high-profile casualty when Russia cut their squad down to the required 23, but there is still plenty of experience amongst Cherchesov’s ranks.
Centurions Sergei Ignashevich and Igor Akinfeev – who have 122 and 106 international caps respectively – lead the way in that respect, while former Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov is another veteran of the team that reached the semi-finals at Euro 2008.
Alan Dzagoev is Russia’s star man in an attacking sense, and the CSKA Moscow playmaker will be hopeful that the likes of Fyodor Smolov and Artem Dzyuba can help shoulder the goalscoring burden in front of their own fans.
One of the men looking to stop that on Thursday will be centre-back Osama Hawsawi, who boasts 135 caps for his country to dwarf even Russia’s stalwarts.
Midfielder Taisir Al-Jassim is not far behind either with 132 caps – not to mention 19 goals, which is a tally only Mohammad Al-Sahlawi can beat in the Saudi squad.
Sixteen of Al-Sahlawi’s 28 international goals came during qualification for this tournament and he will be their main hope of springing a shock this summer, while plenty will also be expected of 23-year-old winger Fahad Al-Muwallad, who has already won 45 caps for his country.
Russia possible starting lineup:
Akinfeev; Smolnikov, Kutepov, Ignashevich; Samedov, Zobrin, Gazinskiy, Zhirkov; Dzagoev, Smolov, Golovin
Saudi Arabia possible starting lineup:
Al Maiouf; Al Shahrani, Os Hawsawi, Om Hawsawi, Al Hardi; Otayf; Al Shehri, Al Jassim, Al Faraj, Al Dawsari; Al Muwallad Al Harbi
Head To Head
The opening match of the World Cup will be just the second meeting between these two sides, and the first since a six-goal friendly thriller in October 1993.
On that occasion, Saudi Arabia gave a taste of what was to come at the World Cup the following year by coming from behind to run out 4-2 winners in Al Khobar.
Game Prediction – Russia 1-0 Saudi Arabia
Russia may not have a huge amount of joy at this summer’s World Cup, but the home crowd should at least spur them on to a positive start at the expensive of Saudi Arabia.