With the FIFA World Cup 2018 almost here, the excitement is palpable and can hardly be contained. Over the next 32 days starting 14th June, the quadrennial event promises every football lover an action-packed tournament with plenty of goals, thrillers, shocks et al.
In all probability, these will also be the first two teams to be knocked out of the tournament in a group that features the likes of Egypt and Uruguay. Coming into the tournament, both Russia and Saudi Arabia have endured horrid runs, to say the least.The opener on June 14th features a clash between two of the lowest-ranked teams that have qualified for the tournament: hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia, ranked 70 and 67 respectively according to the latest FIFA rankings.
In its last six games, the Sbornaya are in dreadful form and have managed just two draws, losing the rest. Having qualified as the host nation, Russia's last victory came in October 2017 against South Korea when they beat them 4-2 at home. However, since then they have been winless.
Although friendlies may not give us a real picture of teams' true strengths, they serve as a rough idea of how a national team may stack up in the run-up to big tournaments. Russia hardly impressed at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup as also the 2016 European championships, where they failed to go past the group stages in both cases.
Their coach, Stanislav Cherchesov has had the worst win percentage (26.3%) compared to any other coach of the Russian team. The home side will be heavily banking on their star goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev to bring them some luck.
The 32-year-old is also the most experienced player in the relatively young squad - which is missing the likes of Aleksandr Kokorin who sustained an anterior cruciate ligament tear while representing his club in the Europa League earlier in March - and much will depend on his performances for the home nation to qualify for the knock-out round.
Having manned the goalpost for every minute of the season for CSKA Moscow, the custodian has kept an impressive 18 clean sheets in 28 games all season.
For Russia, however, the pressure of being the host nation, a winless record in 2018, and a disappointing Confederations Cup last year may play its part in the minds of its players. However, what may play to their advantage is the fact that their opponents, Saudi Arabia, haven't been in great form either.
Russia predicted line-up:
Cherchesov may prefer a playing eleven based on players' recent form. The image above shows how Russia may line up for the game in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Saudi Arabia Preview:
Preparations for Saudi Arabia haven't been better off than Russia. Having sacked two coaches coming into the World Cup finals, Juan Antonio Pizzi has taken charge of the side only seven months ago.
The Green Falcons, however, will be a good match for the hosts in the opening game. Saudi Arabia have had slightly better form coming into the opening game with four losses and two wins, coming against Greece and Algeria. The Green Falcons played their last friendly, a spirited game against Germany narrowly losing 2-1, giving the defending champions a mighty scare.
Juan Antonio Pizzi has been experimenting with the squad and quite surprisingly has preferred to keep their main striker, Al Sahlawi, on the bench for most friendlies. However, he may choose the striker's experience for the opening game.
Saudi Arabia predicted line-up:
Here's how Saudi Arabia may line up for the game in a 4-1-4-1 formation:
In the past, Russia have faced Saudi Arabia only once way back in 1993 in a friendly where the Sbornaya beat the Asians by a 4-2 scoreline.
Regardless of Saudi Arabia's slightly better form coming into the tournament, Russia may have the upper hand due to its familiarity to its home conditions as well as the backing of the entire stadium at Luhzniki. That could well be enough for the home side to edge Saudi Arabia by a 2-1 scoreline. What's your prediction?
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