First-time World Cup hosts Russia will be hoping to make a positive start to their campaign when they face Saudi Arabia in the opening group game on Thursday.
According to the FIFA ranking system, we should expect a closely contested clash. Russia are 66th in the rankings while Saudi are 67th. The only other meeting between these two sides came in 1993 when Saudi Arabia won 4-2 in a friendly tie.
Heading into the World Cup opener, Russia are struggling for form. They have not won in their last six international games and lost against Austria, France, Brazil, Mexico, and Portugal.
They will be banking on the experienced heads of Igor Akinfeev and Yuri Zhirkov to help lead the team through the group games and hopefully sneak into the knockout phase.
Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov told the press ahead of the game: “We have been studying our opponents from day one. There are no weak teams in any of the groups. The first game is important as it will set the tone to a certain extent.
“We are trying to iron out any kinks we have.”
“Our mood is very good, we are ready to work. We did a lot of work in Austria and we have reached a good recent level, especially against Turkey [a 1-1 draw in a pre-tournament friendly] when we showed a bit of the game we want to play,” he added.
“Any coach has to accept criticism. I don’t read anything and stay focused on my job. We are trying to do what we’re doing – the fact we are getting criticised, that’s the world we live in today.
“Perhaps some don’t criticise enough and some too much. We never touch upon this topic at all. We have to do everything to turn criticism into praise.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia have done better by comparison in the build-up to the global showpiece. In the nine international friendlies they played in this year, they won three, against Moldova, Greece, and Algeria. They also drew with Ukraine.
The Green Falcons are expected to come out firing from the get-go, according to their manager Juan Antonio Pizzi. He told Arab News: “I like to press high up the park and put the opponents under pressure.
“Take the ball to the offensive line and get into a situation where we can score. Sometimes that happens and other times it is not very effective, but that’s the general objective.”
Saudi Arabia will be hoping their trio of attacking midfielders Salem al-Dawsari, Yahya al-Shehri, and Fahad al-Muwallad can break down the hosts on home soil and spoil the Russian celebrations.