The fixture between host nation Russia (66/1) and rank outsiders Saudi Arabia (1000/1) is not a match that would normally arouse the interest of football fans around the globe. However, given it is the curtain raiser of the FIFA 2018 World Cup, the eyes of all seven continents will be watching with interest come 4pm Thursday 14th July.
A capacity crowd of 81,000 will cheer on favourites Russia (odds on at 1.44) in the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. Nothing but a win will suffice and this is reflected in the market deeming the opponents an 11.0 shot. This lack of respect for Saudi Arabia is partly due to 21 of their 23 players plying their trade in the Saudi Professional League. Only Salem Al-Dawsari (Villarrreal) and Faha Al-Muwallad (Levante) play abroad. Indeed, in qualifying The Green Falcons lost three of five on their travels, highlighting their players’ preference for staying at home.
Russia know a loss will make it very unlikely they can make it through the Group. However, avoiding defeat should not be the aim - nothing but 3 points should be on the agenda. A precious win, coupled with the likely Uruguay defeat of Egypt, means Russia would be in a great spot going into their 2nd game. Egypt would then have to play an unnatural attacking game, in their push for points, meaning Russia can look to keep it tight and break.
Therefore, in tomorrow’s match, surely manager Stanislav Cherchechov will allow Aleksei Miranchuk and Alan Dragoev the opportunity to play just behind Fedor Smolov in an attacking formation. Although, given his substitute spot in the friendlies versus Austria and Turkey recently, Miranchuk might be pipped to a starting spot by Yuri Zhirkov -once of Chelsea ‘fame’- or Aleksandr Golovin of CSKA.
Russia’s lack of competitive matches makes it hard to analyse where this team is at. However, we can point towards The Confederations Cup, where Russia performed badly. Only nine players survived from The Euro 2016 squad, but the results were just as bleak, with a Group stage exit.
In Saudi’s nine friendlies this calendar year, they’ve been out-shot roughly 80-140. That sample size does include games against much stronger opposition than Russia. The matches against Germany, Italy, Belgium and Peru make up about 90 of these shots conceded. However, bar the drubbing against Belgium, and an odd loss to Iraq, results haven’t been overly shoddy.
Manager Manuel Antonio Pizzi will have to do something that has not happened in the last 10 World Cups: guide his side to a victory against the host nation in their opening game. Indeed, Saudi Arabia have not won a match in their last three World Cup appearances (1998, 2002 and 2006), drawing two and losing seven matches.
With all this in mind, and on the understanding that this really is a match between two poor teams, played under intense pressure and spotlight, we might see a low scoring affair. As with all potentially low scoring affairs, it’s an opportunity to get an underdog onside.
A cautious watching brief is advised, with just one point risked on Saudi Arabia +1.5 on the Asian Handicap at 1.75 (3/4) with BlackTypeBet. This means that as long as Saudi Arabia don’t lose by more than one goal, we’ll kick off The World Cup with a winner.
This would have landed in six of Saudi’s nine friendlies this year and all four of Russia’s friendlies this year. Obviously in friendly matches the results are of little consequence; however we don’t have much else to go on in terms of Russia matches and Saudi’s games against other Gulf located countries aren’t really a representation of the step up in class they’ll encounter over the next fortnight.
Let’s hope the former Russian international who are called this side ‘the worst in Russian history’ are indeed correct.