Russia vs Saudi Arabia: 5 things to look forward to

Host nation Russia get the 2018 World Cup underway as they face Saudi Arabia in the first match in Group A.

REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Three years, eleven months and one day: the time between Mario Gotze’s injury-time heroics at the 2014 World Cup final and the first kick of the 2018 World Cup.

It’s been a long wait, a long four years but the next edition of the month-long festival of football is finally upon us. 

Brazil, Germany and France lead the way in the pre-kick off favourites charts but all of that will matter none to both Russia and Saudi Arabia when they emerge onto the Luzhniki pitch in front of a sell-out crowd.

Group A is far from a formality and both teams will look to get their campaigns off to the best possible start.

  1. 1 The first game is always special

    REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

    On paper, these two sides battling it out may not exactly scream 'World Cup classic' but the first game of any World Cup is always a special one. 

    In recent editions of the tournament, the first game hasn't been short of drama and entertainment.

    Marcelo turned the ball into his own net in the opening fixture in 2014 when hosts Brazil faced Croatia before his side fought back to win a highly entertaining game 3-1. 

    In 2010, Siphiwe Tshabalala famously sent home nation South Africa into raptures with one of the goals of the tournament - a thunderous strike into the top corner. 

    Germany legend Philipp Lahm kicked the 2006 tournament off with a similarly impressive hit as the hosts defeated Costa Rica 4-2. 

    In 2002, Senegal famously upset holders France with a 1-0 win to rip up the script. 

  2. 2 Who will score the first goal of the 2018 World Cup?

    REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

    15 years from now, a retired Russian or Saudi international will be remembered in pubs and bars all over the world, at least when it's quiz night. 

    The scorer of the first goal in a World Cup is always remembered and it's an 'honour' that everyone wishes they could have - it's definitely one for the grandchildren. 

    The danger of a 0-0 scoreline is always there but there hasn't been a bore draw in the opening game of a World Cup since 1978 when West Germany and Poland finished in a stalemate.

    From a Russian point of view, many will fancy FC Krasnodar and the squad's top scorer, Fyodor Smolov, to open proceedings. 

    Arsenal Tula's Artem Dzyuba is also a strong candidate - the forward has 11 goals in his 23 appearances. 

    For the Saudi's, top scorer Mohammad Al-Sahlawi will carry the goal scoring responsibility on his shoulders. With an impressive 28 goals in 40 games, including 16 in qualifying, the nation's hopes will lie with the Al-Nassr forward. 

  3. 3 Saudi Arabia won't roll over

    REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

    Many will expect Russia to dominate and control this opener from the first minute. 

    The crowd, home advantage and the spirit of the occasion will make things a little more difficult for the Saudi's but they aren't here to just make up the numbers. 

    With Egypt sweating over the fitness and effectiveness of star man Mohamed Salah, this match may not be quite the 'basement battle' that it has been dubbed. 

    A Salah-less Egypt is a considerably less fearful opposition and, while it will be difficult to see any of the three sides getting the better of Uruguay, the runner-up spot and place in the Round of 16 of the competition is very much a possibility. 

    If recent form is anything to go by, the Saudi's made sure they were tested before heading to Russia. Three warm-up games against Italy and reigning world champions, Germany, sandwiched a fixture with South American dark horses, Peru. 

    The Saudi's lost all three fixtures, but narrow 2-1 defeats against the two European sides will give them a confidence boost. 

    Russia, meanwhile, have had limited warm-up action and only managed a draw in their single pre-tournament fixture with Turkey. 

  4. 4 Igor Akinfeev error prone

    REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

    Russian fans will be all too familiar with long-standing goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev's potential to make critical errors in big games. 

    Akinfeev endured a torrid time at the 2014 World Cup, his performances littered with errors that eventually cost his team dearly. 

    In Russia's opening fixture against South Korea, a shot from Lee Keun-ho somehow escaped his clutches. Aleksandr Kerzhakov got his side back into the game which finished 1-1 but the error from the goalkeeper cost his side two crucial points. 

    In the final game of the group stage, Russia still had a chance of progressing to the knockout stages. A win over Algeria would have all but guaranteed a spot in the last-16. 

    On the hour mark with the Russian's 1-0 up, Akinfeev misjudged a corner allowing Islam Slimani to head into an empty net and earn a point for his side. Four points dropped, all, literally, by Akinfeev. 

    The goalkeeper will captain the squad and is the second-most experienced player in the team but will nerves get to him once more?

  5. 5 The midfield to be the key?

    REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

    With both sides likely to fancy themselves to score, could the outcome of the game be dictated in the midfield?

    The Saudi's usually opt for a more compact, defensive style of play and can bolster their midfield with five across it. 

    Russia will probably play a more attacking, 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 formation, perhaps exposing the midfield areas more so than their opponents. 

    CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev is a mainstay in the Russian midfield and can be an effective link between midfield. 

    The 27-year-old brings lots of international experience to the home nation's central area and has an impressive range of passing - Russia will look to have him on the ball and pull the strings. 

    The vastly experienced Taisir Al-Jassim, who at 33-years-old has 132 caps for his nation, will be tasked with providing extra defensive cover when needed and linking up with front-man Mohammad Al-Sahlawi in attack. 

    Abdullah Otayf, who featured heavily in the friendlies with Italy and Germany, will assume his normal task of patrolling in front of the back four and look to launch counter-attacks from his deep-lying midfield position. 

     This one could go either way, but both sides know the importance of winning this opening fixture, and perhaps more importantly, not losing it. 

    Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group A in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?

Jack Dudley


Football writer and Championship enthusiast, currently based in the Middle East.