The 2018 World Cup kicks off with the host nation getting the full spotlight Thursday when Russia opens play in Group A versus Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
As the host country, Russia automatically qualified for the World Cup. The Sbornaya are appearing in back-to-back tournaments for the first time in their history, but in a group that features rugged South American side Uruguay and an Egypt team led by Liverpool scoring ace Mohamed Salah, they will be hard-pressed to avoid becoming just the second host in World Cup history to fail to reach the knockout round.
This is the third consecutive year Russia will be playing in a major tournament, having failed to advance out of group play in both the 2016 European Championship and last year’s Confederations Cup on home soil. In lieu of qualifiers, the Sbornaya have played friendlies around these tournaments, but their World Cup run-up failed to take off as they suffered losses to Brazil, France and Austria this year before drawing Turkey 1-1 on June 5.
This will be Russia’s fourth World Cup appearance overall, and the Sbornaya have never advanced to the knockout round. They finished third in Group H in Brazil four years ago, getting eliminated after being held to a 1-1 draw by Algeria in their final match.
Saudi Arabia qualified as the runner-up to Japan in Group B of qualifying in Asia and is one of five teams carrying the continent’s banner. The Green Falcons are making their fifth World Cup appearance and first since 2006 but have not won a match since their high-water mark of reaching the knockout round in the United States in 1994.
Since the field was expanded to 32 countries for the 1998 World Cup, Saudi Arabia has finished no better than 28th in its previous three appearances and claimed only two draws from their nine group matches while being outscored 26-4.
Like Russia, Juan Antonio Pizzi’s team has struggled to find its form of late, absorbing losses to Italy, Peru and reigning champion Germany in its send-off matches.
Russia is expected to use a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Fyodor Smolov as the lone striker and Alan Dzagoev in support as an attacking midfielder. Though Aleksander Kokorin did not play in the Confederations Cup last year, it was still a blow for manager Stanislav Cherchesov not to have him available for selection after the forward suffered a torn ACL in March playing for Zenit St. Petersburg in the round of 16 in Europa League.
Cherchesov also has had to make do without injured defenders Georgy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin, which prompted his switch from a three-man backline to four.
The Sbornaya have two centurions in their starting XI, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev (106) and 38-year-old defender Sergei Ignashevich (122).
Saudi Arabia likely will use a 4-1-4-1 set-up, hoping forward Mohammed Al-Sahlawi can recapture his form from qualifying in which he bagged 16 goals. The Al-Nassr man missed a penalty in the Green Falcons’ loss to Germany but is the top scorer on the roster with 28 goals in 40 international appearances.
Like Russia, Saudi Arabia is expected to start two players with over 100 international appearances in defender and talisman Osama Hawsawi (135) and midfielder Taisir Al-Jassim (132).
Both squads are comprised primarily of players from their respective domestic leagues. Russia feature only two players toiling for foreign clubs in goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge) and midfielder Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal), while Saudi Arabia boast three La Liga midfielders in Salem Al-Dawsari (Villarreal), Fawad Al-Muwallad (Levante) and Yahya Al-Shehri (Leganes). Al-Muwallad and Al-Shehri, however, failed to get any playing time in league play with their respective clubs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Russia – Igor Akinfeev (GK)
The most decorated keeper in Russian football, Akinfeev is making his second World Cup appearance and has been part of the Sbornaya since 2004 when he debuted as a teenager. He has been a Champions League fixture with CSKA Moscow at the club level, so the big stage is nothing new to the 32-year-old, but Akinfeev is also known for having a streak of 43 matches in which he conceded at least once in Europe’s top club tournament.
Saudi Arabia – Yahya Al-Shehri (MID)
One of three players to trek to Spain during the January transfer window, the move from Al-Nassr did not go swimmingly for Al-Shehri. He is at his best with the ball at his feet and running at defenders in space behind Al-Sahlawi. Prior to his move, Al-Shehri had six goals and 12 assists in the previous two seasons with Al-Nassr.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Aleksander Golovin has reportedly drawn the interest of European powers Manchester United and Juventus along with Monaco, Chelsea and Arsenal. The 22-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder is expected to command a £25 million transfer fee, which could climb higher with a strong showing in front of the hometown fans.
Per Ladbrokes, Russia are 2-5 favorites to win, while Saudi Arabia have 17-2 odds to claim three points. There are 3-1 odds on the match ending in a draw. For first goal-scorers, Fyodor Smolov is the front-runner with 11/5 odds, while Al-Sahlawi is listed at 9/1 to give the Green Falcons a 1-0 lead.
In World Cup history, no host nation has lost its opening match. The most recent draw came in 2010 when South Africa played Mexico to a 1-1 stalemate. Bafana Bafana, though, became the first host team to fail to advance out of group stage.
Given Russia’s results in its run-up to hosting football’s biggest event, there is justifiable concern it will be the second. Cherchesov has just five wins in 19 matches since taking over the Sbornaya in August 2016, and the target of reaching the semifinals appears to be an awfully big ask of the hosts. Their last tournament, the 2017 Confederations Cup, also failed to inspire as their lone victory came against New Zealand.
Pizzi, who guided Chile to the 2016 Copa America title before resigning the following year after their shock failure to qualify for Russia, has done well to stock Saudi Arabia’s roster with players from its top two domestic sides, Al-Ahli and Al-Nassr. Of the three players who went to Spain, only Al-Dawsari saw playing time, and that was a 33-minute stint as a substitute in one game.
While the lack of match fitness was addressed with those three friendlies, it also speaks to the lack of an elite player on the Green Falcons, whose FIFA ranking of 67th is ahead of only Russia, which enters the World Cup at No. 70.
Once the adrenaline of hosting the World Cup wears off, Russia must go about the business of taking three points from this match since claiming the maximum six in its other two contests likely will not occur. The Sbornaya must maximize possession through Golovin and Dzagoev to link up with Smolov in the final third, and their reconfigured back four must bottle up Al-Sahlawi.
If the Green Falcons can navigate the first 30 minutes of the contest either tied or with the lead, that will bode well for their chances of taking at least one point. While Russia likely will score first, look for Saudi Arabia to score last and claim a share of the points in a 1-1 draw.
Russia will move onto St. Petersburg for its second group match against Egypt on June 19, while Saudi Arabia squares off with Uruguay the following day at Rostov-on-Don.