World Cup Group A: Can Saudi Arabia spoil Russia's coming out party?
On the 12th March 2015, qualifying got underway for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Three years, three months and two days later the competition will finally get underway when hosts, Russia take on Saudi Arabia in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. So far, 178 teams have been eliminated from the 209 that started qualifying. 872 games have been played and 2454 goals have been scored which has left us with 31 qualifiers and hosts, Russia as the 32 finalists.
As the host nation, Russia always knew they would be playing in this game and the draw has pitted them against Asian giants, Saudi Arabia in the opener. Russia and Saudi Arabia aren’t exactly the glamour pairing that FIFA might have wanted to open their flagship tournament but for both sides, it is a huge opportunity to play in a game that the whole world will be watching.
Neither Russia or Saudi Arabia will be expected to make much of an impression in the tournament and by the time it reaches it’s climax on the 15th July they will most likely be watching from the comfort of their own homes but one certainty is that the stadium itself will feature on World Cup Final day, as the Luzhniki Stadium will play host to the game. With 81,000 seats the Luzhniki Stadium is the largest in the tournament and it will provide a perfect setting for all seven games that it is set to host.
FIFA Ranking: 70th
With the eyes of the world on them, Russia will be favourites to get their tournament off to a good start but considering their recent form, it looks far from guaranteed that the home crowd will get the result they crave. Russia hasn’t won in their last seven games with a record of three draws and four defeats. They will point to the fact that those were all friendlies but surely it doesn’t bode well for their confidence and their hope that “it will be alright on the night” might be wishful thinking.
It’s hard to judge how a host nation will do in a World Cup as they have generally gone without competitive games for such a long time. Since Russia were eliminated from Euro 2016 their only three meaningful games came in last summers Confederation Cup. A win over New Zealand saw hopes boosted but defeats to Portugal and Mexico saw them eliminated at the group stage.
Russia will be led into the tournament by their former goalkeeper, Stanislav Cherchesov. Chersesov kept goal for the USSR, CIS and Russia between 1990 and 2000. He has been in management for 14 years now and was appointed Russian boss in 2016 just after guiding Legia Warsaw to a league and cup double in Poland. He looks to have his full 23 man squad available for selection in the opener which means he will most likely deploy a 4-3-3 formation. There are no superstars in this Russian side but some of the more important players will include Igor Akinfeev in goal, 38-year-old defender Sergei Ignashevich, Aleksandr Golovin in midfield, Euro 2012 star Alan Dzagoev on the left wing and their top goalscorer Fyodor Smolov in attack.
While there won’t be huge expectations on Russia in this tournament as a whole, they will be expected to beat Saudi Arabia. With this being the opening game it will attract a lot more attention from around the world and Russians tend to not like being second best so all the pressure will be on the hosts to get off to a good start.
FIFA Ranking: 67th
Saudi Arabia also come into this game in poor form. They have lost three games in a row and they haven't won a match at a World Cup since 1994 (beating Morocco 2-1) which is a run that has now stretched to 10 games without a victory. As bad as their recent World Cup record is they showed in qualification that they are a decent side as they came through a difficult group where they were second behind Japan but ahead of fellow qualifiers, Australia, who ended up having to take the long route to the Finals.
Saudi Arabia will be led by none other than Juan Antonio Pizzi. Pizzi is a former Spain international although he was actually born in Argentina. He spent much of his playing career in Spain, mostly with Tenerife, where he won the Pichici for top goalscorer but his most successful spell came at Barcelona. During his two years in Catalunya, he helped Barca win La Liga, two Copa del Rey's, a Spanish Super Cup, the Cup Winners' Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. Since retiring he has gone into management with his most notable achievement being leading Chile to success in the 2016 Copa America. Ironically, his spell with Chile came to an end with failure to qualify for this World Cup so while Chile won't be in Russia this summer, Pizzi will be.
Pizzi has a full squad at his disposal for the World Cup opener so he will be expected to go with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Despite losing to Germany in their most recent friendly, Saudi Arabia played quite well and were rather ambitious against the world champions. They defended well as a group but when they got possession they threw a lot of men forward in attack so if they keep that up when the real matches begin then there's no reason that they can't cause problems for an ageing Russian defence.
Key to Saudi Arabia's hopes will be Yahia Al-Shehri. The diminutive attacking midfielder has a lot of technical ability and he will be looking to pick out Fahad Al-Muwallad's runs in attack and if the two combine and their defence holds tight then Russia's day in the sun might just be gatecrashed.
Russia will be many peoples favourites but I think there's something in this for Saudi Arabia. I'll sit on the fence by predicting a 1-1 draw.