After years of building up to it the World Cup 2018 is ready to begin, and as ever in recent times it begins with the host nation in action when Russia host Saudi Arabia in a huge Group A clash in Moscow on Thursday afternoon.
With Uruguay expected to dominate this group these two sides will be wanting fast starts which will put the pressure on the pair of them here but if you can’t handle the heat you probably shouldn’t be here in the first place.
You never truly know how to judge the home nation in World Cups these days because they don’t have to qualify. It is made a little easier with the fact they all get invited to the Confederations Cup which Russia hosted last summer but other than that the only thing we have to judge them on are a bunch of friendlies, which they might well be playing competitively, but their opponents maybe not so.
We saw in that Confederations Cup last year that this isn’t a particularly good Russia side, as evidenced further by the fact they are the lowest ranked team in the competition. They have a number of defensive issues and with their main forward out of the tournament too, home advantage aside there isn’t much to like about the Russians really.
I guess you could probably argue that we can only really judge Saudi Arabia in this match as well because they came through Asian qualifying which isn’t particularly strong but at least they are used to playing competitive matches which is never a bad thing. They haven’t eased up in warming up for this tournament either with run outs against Italy and Germany in recent times.
I think it is fair to say the strength in the Asians lies in their attacking core. While they will look to be organised, Juan Antonio Pizzi is best known for getting sides to go forward in waves and that is what I expect from the Saudis here. Everyone is writing Saudi Arabia off and given that they have never won a World Cup match before that is easy to do but it might just free them up a little.
We know Russia are without Aleksandr Kolorin misses the entire tournament so Fedor Smolov will be the one looked upon to score the goals. Sergei Ignashevich has been yanked out of retirement to plug the gap caused by a raft of defensive injuries.
There is talk that Saudi Arabia have a selection decision to make up front but they don’t really. Mohammed Al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals in qualifying and it would be bordering on madness if he doesn’t get the starting berth here.
Russia are very warm favourites for this opening match but you need something of a leap of faith to be backing such a poor side at pretty extreme odds on quotes. They have home advantage but it might be that they would have been better off playing one of the other two teams first off where they wouldn’t be as heavily expected to win and could ease their way into the tournament. They are not for me at the prices I must admit.
I happen to think the best bet is for both teams to score. Saudi Arabia took the game to both Italy and Germany at times in their recent friendlies and led Asian qualifying in terms of scoring. Russia are littered with defensive injuries so they might need to play on the front foot and it is hard to see the Saudis keeping the home side out for 90 minutes. Mexico in 1970 were the last hosts not to score in their opening game. Many are expecting a dour game here. I don’t see it like that. I like both to score.
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