World Desk : Almost four years of waiting has led to this. Precisely 1432 days after Mario Gotze’s extra time goal saw Germany add a fourth star to their jersey, Russia and Saudi Arabia take to the field to start another chapter in the storied history of the FIFA World Cup.
Following a 30-minute opening ceremony, which will feature Robbie Williams and Ronaldo, Russia will look to start the tournament with a morale-boosting victory in Group A at Luzhniki Stadium.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side are the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup and have not won a game since October 2017.
Russia have failed to win in seven non-competitive attempts since beating Korea Republic in October, while the Saudis have lost three friendly matches in a row – albeit to strong opposition in Italy, Peru and World Cup holders Germany.
Both will also be hoping for victory at the Luzhniki to end a barren run at the global finals: Russia have not won at the World Cup since 2002, while Saudi Arabia’s last global finals’ victory came at USA 1994.
They were whistled off the pitch by fans after drawing their final warm-up against Turkey and former Russia and Manchester United winger Andrei Kanchelskis says it is the “worst Russian team” he has seen during his lifetime.
The hosts have been hampered by injuries, with forward Alexander Kokorin and defenders Georgy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin missing the tournament due to knee problems.
“We’re realists,” said striker Artyom Dzyuba. “We’re not favourites to win the World Cup, but we want to get out of the group and we’re playing at home. We want to prove to everyone, and most of all to ourselves, that we can play football, so that the country can be proud of us.
“We’re a football country, not just an ice hockey or basketball or volleyball country, but a football one too. And we’ll put every effort into getting out of the group, to start with, and we’ll only start fantasising after that.”
Saudi Arabia are the second-lowest ranked team at the World Cup and have lost their last three matches heading into the tournament.
Egypt and Uruguay meet in the second Group A clash on Friday.
Russia and Saudi Arabia’s only previous encounter was in October 1993; the Saudis won 4-2 at home in a friendly.
Team reporter analysis
Since the split up of the USSR, Russia have never reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in three appearances (1994, 2002, 2014). They have finished third in their group in each of those three editions.
France were the last World Cup hosts to win the trophy in 1998. The hosts have always reached the second round of the competition, the only exception coming in 2010 when South Africa were knocked out in the group stages.
This is Saudi Arabia’s fifth World Cup, their first since 2006. They have finished bottom of their group in their last three appearances, their best performance dating back to their opening tournament in 1994 (knocked out by Sweden in the round of 16).
Saudi Arabia have won none of their last 10 games at the World Cup, losing eight of them (D2). In fact, their last win in the competition dates back to the group stages of the 1994 edition (1-0 v Belgium, 29th June 1994).
Saudi Arabia have kept only one clean sheet in their 13 games at the World Cup – it was in their 1-0 win against Belgium in June 1994. They have also failed to score in seven of their last nine games in the tournament.
Despite the fact that public criticism has grown due to Russia’s recent form in friendly games, the hosts are hoping to show their value in the opener against Saudi Arabia. They’ve spent a quiet working week at their base in Novogorsk, far away from the hub of World Cup activity in Moscow, and seem recharged and ready to deliver.
The Saudi team are striving for a good result to show a positive image of the nation’s footballing development to the world. Partly as a result of the occasion, they will likely be cautious from the start. After the opening ten minutes, Juan Antonio Pizzi will have a better idea of the Russians’ strengths and alter his plan accordingly.
Did you know…?
No host team has lost in the Opening Match of the World Cup, which has produced six victories and three draws for the home side. Russia have also been in the Saudis’ shoes before, having contested a World Cup opener as the away side: they drew 0-0 with Mexico in 1970 as the Soviet Union.
These are the two struggling teams, but I’ve just gone for Russia to win this game – but only just – given their home advantage. I always find that with teams at home, that just gives them that little bit more.
Paul Predicts: 1-0
Russia: Igor Akinfeev; Mario Fernandes, Fedor Kudryashov, Sergey Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov; Roman Zobnin, Daler Kuzyaev, Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Samedov, Aleksandr Golovin; Fedor Smolov
Saudi Arabia: Abdullah Al-Mayouf; Usamah Husawi, Omar Hosawi, Yasser Al-Shahrani, Mohammed Al-Barik; Abdullah Otif, Salman Al-Faraj, Yahya Al-Shihri, Taisir Al-Jassim, Salem Al Dosari; Fahad Al-Molad