2018 World Cup Pick & Preview: Russia vs Saudi Arabia – June 14, 2018
Matchup at a Glance
World Cup 2018, Group A: Russia vs Saudi Arabia
Where: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Date + Time (ET): Thursday, 14.06.2018 – 15:00 UTC
Odds: Russia -250, Draw +320, Saudi Arabia +750 @ Intertops
Quick Pick: Half Time / Full Time – Russia/Russia @-105 @Intertops
The 2018 FIFA World Cup opening game is scheduled for 14 June when host nation Russia will take on one of the competition underdogs Saudi Arabia at the “Luzhniki Stadium” in Russian capital Moscow. In addition to being one of the most anticipated football fixtures this year, as an opening game happening once in four years, this will be the first ever competitive encounter between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Both nations have already met months before the 1994 World Cup when Saudi Arabia won 4-2 a friendly match on 6 October 1993 in Riyadh with the goals of Khaled Messed (two goals), Hamza Idriss Falatah and Fahad Al Mehallel. Former attacking midfielder of Spartak Moscow, Strasbourg and Celta Vigo, Aleksandr Mostovoi, was the player who scored both goals for Russia back then.
Russia will hope to make it through the World Cup group stage for the first time after the USSR collapse but Stanislav Cherchesov's men must deal with one serious issue heading to that game. Apart from the three games played at last year's Confederations Cup, Russia lacks competitive match practice for the past two years. Their disappointing general warm up at home soil during the 2017 Confederations Cup is surrounded by friendly matches since the unsuccessful UEFA Euro 2016 participation. Furthermore, “Sbornaya” has won just four games in the 17 international friendlies played ever since, losing seven of them. As positives we can highlight the 4-2 win over South Korea in October 2017, as well as a 3-3 draw vs Spain in November the same year.
Saudi Arabia is winless at World Cup finals since its debut, but also best ever performance in 1994, when the Green Falcons achieved two wins over Morocco and Belgium. Thus they've reached the Round of 16 in the USA, and 24 years later the squad led by Juan Antonio Pizzi is surely dreaming to reach the same stage in Russia.
Everything starts with a game staged by the final venue, Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, that can be crucial for Saudi Arabia's further hopes. If they manage to upset hosts in the opening game, the Saudis can definitely move on with greater confidence. Their next enemies are the other two Group A members – Uruguay and Egypt, respectively.
After the two defeats to Brazil (0-3) and France (1-3) in March 2018, Russia has scheduled two games against opponents from their level in closing part of its World Cup preparation. First, “Sbornaya” will travel to Innsbruck for a clash against Austria in end of May, while couple of days later Russia will play another friendly against Turkey, after a goalless draw from August 2016, this time in Moscow, nine days before the World Cup opening game.
Stanislav Cherchesov will use these games to set his final formation although he will most likely stick within the 3-5-2 used in most friendlies, as well as at the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Update: Following latest pre-World Cup friendlies Russia had against Austria (0-1) and Turkey (1-1), it's obvious that Russians struggle to play with three centre-backs and we won't be surprised if Cherchesov reverts to a 4-1-4-1 formation here.
The vast majority of Russian footballers play in the Russian Premier League, while there are two players who play abroad – goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge) and winger Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal). The Fenerbahce defender Roman Neustadter, who was included in the preliminary squad, has been left out of the final 23-men squad.
It seems that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation has very serious ambitions and takes the preparation to the next level, as the Saudis are those who will play most friendly games before the competition. In addition to the three friendlies in May and early-June, which most teams also play but they'll play one or two, the Green Falcons have scheduled two more friendlies in first half of May. This means they'll play five friendlies in overall, in the closing weeks before the World Cup kick-off.
Saudi Arabia will play matches against Algeria (9 May), Greece (15 May), Italy (28 May), Peru (3 June) and Germany (8 June), as the last one is scheduled less than a week before the opening World Cup match vs Russia.
Juan Antonio Pizzi relies on a squad built by domestic league players, including a few of them, all wingers, who have been loaned at Spanish La Liga teams with purpose to gain experience. Those are the likes of Yahya Al-Shehri (Leganes), Fahad Al-Muwallad (Levante), Salem Al-Dawsari (Villarreal), who have failed to record any minutes in the Spanish clubs. This means that Saudi Arabia will try to spoil Russia's opening party with an entire team of players from the Saudi Professional League.
Possible Lineups of Russia and Saudi Arabia
Russia: Igor Akinfeev, Igor Smolnikov, Vladimir Granat, Sergey Ignashevich, Fyodor Kudryashov, Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Samedov, Aleksandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev, Yuri Zhirkov, Fyodor Smolov. (4-1-4-1)
Saudi Arabia: Abdullah Al Maiouf, Mohammed Al-Burayk, Omar Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi, Yasser Al-Shahrani, Salman Al-Faraj, Taisir Al-Jassim, Fahad Al-Muwallad, Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi. (4-2-3-1)
Conclusion and Betting Pick
We believe that the Russians won’t let the home crowd down and they will seriously benefit from the home advantage. Saudi Arabia should be the easiest, at least on paper, opposition for Russia and if “Sbornaya” wants to reach the knockout phase, well, this is a must win situation.