As Robbie Williams warms up his vocal cords ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, we shall skip any coverage of the action before a ball is kicked – however tempting – and dive straight into the football.
Our hosts for the summer are Russia who take the field in the inaugural game of football at the tournament. They will be facing a Saudi Arabia side who have not participated in a World Cup finals since 2006 in Germany where they finished at the foot of their group with a solitary point.
Whereas it is fair to argue it is not the ideal fixture to be the curtain raiser of the tournament, it is nonetheless an interesting tie.
For Russia, following a dismal European Championships in 2016 where they finished bottom of their group, picking up only a point in their game against England, and in the wake of the hooliganism that plagued the opening weeks of that tournament, all eyes will be on Russia this time around.
After dispensing of the services of Leonid Slutsky after they crashed out of Euro 2016, Russia appointed Stanislav Cherchesov. Following retirements of some of the old guard who represented the country after that disastrous showing in France, Cherchesov announced the size of the task at hand by stating he would practically be starting from nothing. A total rebuild of the squad.
A switch from four to three at the back was the immediate change and an influx of young defenders all trying out for the three centre back spots in the team. Due to injuries there is no way of predicting which three defenders will get the nod for the opener against Saudi Arabia. One player who will almost certainly start the first game of the 2018 World Cup is Yuri Zhirkov. The 34-year-old former Chelsea man will be deployed as left wing back for Russia. Given his age, and the responsibility he will have in this position, this could be exploited as a potential weak spot of this Russian side.
At the other end the goals have not exactly been flying in under Cherchesov. Russia have scored just 26 goals in the 20 games under the former Legia Warsaw manager. In Fedor Smolov they at least have a striker in some sort of form. Smolov has hit 4 goals in his last 8 games for Russia and will be relied on heavily to fire Russia out of the group.
Coming into the tournament on the back of a sequence of seven games without a victory is hardly ideal preparation for Russia. Defeats to France and Brazil bring no shame but a 1-1 draw with Carlos Queiroz’s Iran, and defeat to Austria in May is hardly the way Cherchesov would have wanted to be entering the competition. With the added pressure of being the host nation, victory is the opening game is vital for the mood of the country. It will be a tough ask for the Russians to escape Group A with Uruguay and Egypt expected to qualify, so extra onus will be placed on the game against Saudi Arabia at Stadion Luzhniki.
As for their opponents, Saudi Arabia come into the tournament on the back of three defeats, but two win in their last five. The three defeats coming against Italy, Peru, and Germany, in which an own goal from defender Omar Hawsawi proved the difference.
Prior to the three defeats came back to back victories over Algeria and Greece that brought with the two clean sheets. Under former Barcelona striker Juan Antonio Pizzi, they opt for a 4-2-3-1 with the three attacking midfielders also expected to flood the midfield when Saudi Arabia are out of possession.
In qualifying (under Bert van Marwijk) Saudi Arabia went into their final game against Japan in the hope of securing a crucial three points, vital in sending them to Russia. After a goalless hour, Fahad Al Muwallad’s right footed rocket into the top corner sent the home fans into ecstasy. Saudi Arabia held on for the important three points and are now set to make history in becoming the first Asian side to feature in the opening game of a FIFA World Cup.
Like their hosts there is a real possibility of goals being hard to come by. The three attacking midfielders expected to play, Salem al-Dawsari, Yahya al-Shehri, Taisir al-Jassim and forward Fawad Al Muwallad, will be tasked with finding a way through Russia’s defence. In Salem al-Dawsari, widely regarded as the best player in Saudi Arabia at the minute, the Saudi Arabian fans believe they have just the man. Al Jaber, his president at Al Hilal is backing the 26-year-old attacker to make a name for himself this summer on the world stage.
Also like their hosts the hope of achieving qualification from Group A looks slim, such is the quality of the other two sides, so getting off the best possible start is paramount to their ambitions here at the World Cup. They will have expectant support in the stands and plenty of support from the sporting officials back home, and the Saudi players will be hoping the spirit of this side can carry them to victory in the opening fixture.
It may not have the hallmarks of a classic opening fixture to kick off the 2018 FIFA World Cup but there’s no denying there is plenty riding on the outcome of this game for both sides.
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