1600 BST, Thursday 14 June, Luzhniki Stadium (Moscow, Russia), ITV
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… the time is finally upon us.
Host nation Russia will kick off the 2018 World Cup at the iconic Luzhniki Stadium against Saudi Arabia in Group A.
The Russians qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, though failed to emerge from their group. and have consistently fallen at the first hurdle of every tournament since 1986, failing to appear at three of the last six editions before automatically qualifying for this summer as hosts.
Comfort breeds laziness, however, and the Russians have played just three competitive fixtures since their Euro 2016 campaign, and only four in 2018. Winless in their last seven -D3 L4-, their last victory came in October 2017 against South Korea.
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, prepared differently.
Beginning their qualifying campaign in the AFC’s second round, the Saudi’s comfortably topped their group, going undefeated and conceding only four times in eight games.
After a ten-game home-and-away series of matches, Saudi Arabia pipped Australia to the second automatic spot by two goals in the third round.
Since that impressive campaign, though, results have been skewed.
The Saudi’s have only won four of their last fourteen games, losing eight, and their last three. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men didn’t take their warm-up matches easily, though, and narrow 2-1 defeats to Italy and reigning champions Germany can be reflected on proudly.
Last Time Out
Russia 1-1 Turkey [International Friendly]
Russia ensured that they began their World Cup campaign winless in seven fixtures after a 1-1 draw against Turkey, who themselves failed to qualify for this summer’s tournament.
Aleksandr Samedov gave the hosts the lead in Moscow, converting Alan Dzagoev’s pass, but Yunus Malli belted home the equaliser from 25-yards 14 minutes into the second half.
Both Samedov and Fyodor Smolov had chances to win the game and create a sense of optimism heading into their World Cup, but failed to hit the target condemning the tournament’s hosts to just one win in 26 previous internationals.
Germany 2-1 Saudi Arabia [International Friendly]
Saudi Arabia had plenty to be positive about heading into this summer’s World Cup after narrowly losing to the defending champions.
Germany looked comfortable after going 2-0 ahead, with a goal from Timo Werner and an own goal from Omar Hawsawi, but the Saudis did, however, manage 12 attempts at goal with four of them finding the target.
Taiseer Al-Jassam pulled one back six mintues from time, and the Saudis should have been awarded a penalty when Mats Hummels tugged at Mohammad Al-Sahlawi’s shirt in the box, but it went ignored.
Having only had one warm up match right before the start of the tournament, Cherchesov may well name the same XI which started that 1-1 draw with Turkey.
The left side of Russia’s midfield and defence may be of concern. With veterans Yuri Zhirkov and centre half Sergei Ignashevich having a combined age of 72, the Saudi’s may look to exploit that side with pace.
Fyodor Smolov is the top scorer in the team and will be given the responsibility of leading the line.
Saudi Arabia Lineup
Manager Pizzi used the three warm-up friendlies well, rotating his side, and the 3-0 loss to Peru all but confirming his best XI.
Midfield lynchpin Abdullah Otayf and centre half regulars Omar and Osama Hawsawi returned to the lineup to face Germany in the 2-1 defeat.
Up front, the more experienced Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is likely to return to the starting lineup after playing the final 30 minutes on Friday.
Key Battle: Igor Akinfeev (Russia) vs Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Saudi Arabia)
While Russia may edge the odds on this one pre-kick off, they have to be cautious at the back, with the Saudis more than capable of finding the target.
Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has been between the sticks for his nation for years and has amassed 106 caps during his grip on the number one shirt.
Al-Sahlawi has less than half of that amount, but has scored 28 international goals in his 40 caps at a rate of 07 goals per game. The Al-Nassr striker scored 16 goals during qualifying and played a major part in getting his country to the party.
Akinfeev is prone to mistakes in high profile games and made a critical error in Russia’s 2014 World Cup opener against South Korea. He was also at fault for the 2-1 defeat to Mexico in last years Confederation’s Cup, as well as famously going 12 years without a Champions League clean sheet.
Al-Sahlawi knows where the goal is and will look to add to his impressive tally.
An early decider
Saudi Arabia go into the tournament as arguably one of the lesser-known sides, but it can be something they can use to their advantage.
Pizzi’s side have also used their preparation time effectively, having played friendlies with a range of nations from different parts of the world, winning two and losing three since May.
Many have written off their chances, but the Saudis will fancy themselves to at least emerge from a group with no clear favourite.
With South American giants Uruguay and a Mo Salah-led Egypt the other two nations in Group A, both sides will see this opener as their best chance to get a win on the board.
With the fitness of Egypt’s talismanic Salah still in question, the door for the runners-up spot may have opened a little wider.
Few would consider Russia’s chances of going to the tournaments latter stages as high, but locals will still have some hope and expectation of their side.
Hosting a major tournament always provides a difficult challenge, though Russia will hope to do all they can to rise to it. You need only look at Brazil’s semi-final capitulation in 2014 to understand how pressure and expectation can affect a nation.
This fixture may well be dubbed as somewhat of a Group A ‘basement battle,’ but a win for the home side is important, not only to give their fans hope, but to lump early pressure onto Egypt.
Prediction: Russia 1-1 Saudi Arabia
The host nation will be considered favourites for this one, but the recent form and lack of any real warm-up schedule is slightly alarming from a Russian perspective. Frankly, not a lot has gone right.
The home side have not won in seven games (a run that stretches back to the beginning of October), which could generate an overhead cloud of pressure before kick-off.
Saudi Arabia’s ‘unknown’ factor might prove a bigger tool than most realise; only three members of the squad play their domestic football outside the Saudi Pro League and they proved their ability to compete with talented sides, with narrow defeats to both Germany and Italy.
Rewards for winning this opening fixture may be so great that neither side will want to lose it, pertaining to a turgid draw.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Russia, Saudi Arabia and the rest of Group A in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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