World Cup Preview: Russia v Saudi Arabia
After an arduous four year wait the World Cup is finally back and kicks off on Thursday with hosts Russia facing off against Saudi Arabia.
It’s not quite a battle of the titans as the two nations are actually the lowest ranked teams in the competition, with Saudi Arabia sitting at a modest 60th in the world while Russia are languishing down at 70th.
In a scramble to cover defensive injuries, Russian manager Stanislav Cherchesov has brought 38 year-old veteran Sergei Ignashevich out of retirement to aid a team that have failed to bag a win in their last seven matches.
Two years ago, the team finished bottom of their group in Euro 2016 with an ageing defence made up of Ignashevich, and twin brothers Vasili and Alexey Berezutsky attracting a raft of criticism for their lack of pace and organisation.
Cherchesov has gone to great lengths to rebuild but using 10 different players at centre back over the last two years and losing key striker Alexander Kokorin to injury has not done his squad any favours.
Kokorin, who scored 19 goals for Zenit St Petersburg before cruciate ligament surgery ruled him out, will likely be replaced by Krasnodar’s pacey front man Fyodor Smolov, a target for West Ham in January.
Midfield presents further uncertainty for Cherchesov’s team as his go-to defensive midfielder Denis Glushakov has had a poor season at Spartak Moscow.
Alexander Golovin, Roman Zobnin, Daler Kuzyaev and Alan Dzagoev are likely to feature, with 22 year-old dynamo Alexey Miranchuk a near cert to start in attacking midfield.
Saudi Arabia return to the World Cup after a twelve year absence and have failed to win a game at the tournament since beating Belgium in 1994.
Manager Juan Antonio Pizzi took charge of the team in November and has converted them into a possession-based side but this could prove challenging to perform on the world's biggest stage.
For one thing, Pizzi’s team are woefully inexperienced against top level players as almost all have spent their careers playing entirely in the Saudi Professional League.
The Green Falcons will need their biggest players to show up if they are to have much hope of making headway in the competition, with striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi’s form essential to the team’s success after he raked in 16 goals during qualifying.
34 year-old defensive mainstay Osama Hawsawi will also need to be at his tough tackling best to aid a back four that routinely suffers when faced with pacey opponents.
Match sharpness could be a factor as the nation’s regular attacking trio of Salem al-Dawsari, Yahya al-Shehri and Fahad al-Muwallad spent the latter half of the season on loan to La Liga clubs but only managed two appearances between them.
Furthermore, Pizzi's side have history against them as, if they do manage to topple the Russians it will be the first time a host nation has ever lost its opening game.