Russia are the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup and yet, come Thursday’s opener, they will be expected to provide a nation-lifting performance against Saudi Arabia.
The hosts are somewhat ill-equipped to deliver the fireworks expected of such an occasion, having tumbled to an all-time low of 70th in the world ahead of a tournament that will be debated as much for events on the pitch as those that rumble on in the shadows.
Thankfully for head coach Stanislav Cherchesov, a former national team goalkeeper who was appointed to the top job in August 2016, the order of Group A fixtures has at least been kind.
Saudi Arabia are just three places better off in the FIFA rankings and present an opportunity for Russia to bank a precious three points at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
The Green Falcons are back on the big stage for the first time since 2006 but are without the man who got them there, Dutchman Bert van Marwijk having stepped aside last September.
Edgardo Bauza lasted barely two months in the position before he was cast aside in favour of former Chile boss Juan Antonio Pizzi, who is yet to inspire belief this Saudi side can match the efforts of the team that reached the last 16 in 1994.
Pizzi has presided over nine friendlies in 2018 and won just three, although that recent record is more encouraging in light of Russia’s seven-match winless streak.
“We still have time to study Russia’s game,” Saudi midfielder Yahya Al-Shehri said.
“First of all, we must focus on our own game. I hope, we will be able to beat Russia.
“I think the game against Russia will be very difficult… Russia are a good team with great players.
“They are united and strong, especially in defence.”
Russia’s Artem Dzyuba, meanwhile, issued an impassioned rallying cry to fans of the team.
“We are preparing for the tournament, we want to win,” he said.
“For us, this is the main event in our lives, we need support of the whole country… We will fight, we will struggle, and you will judge us then.”
The first Asian team to play in the opening match of a#WorldCup are here!
Welcome to Russia,@SaudiNTpic.twitter.com/OYXvVs1ckk
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 9, 2018
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Russia – Fedor Smolov
Russia’s scoring problems are obvious, with just two goals netted in this year’s four friendlies and no more than one in any of their last six matches at major tournaments.
Krasnodar striker Smolov could be the man to ease those concerns. The 28-year-old boasts 52 goals from his last three seasons in Russia’s top flight and has reportedly attracted Premier League interest.
Saudia Arabia – Osama Hawsawi
In a squad without World Cup experience, Osama Hawsawi’s 135 caps of international know-how could prove crucial in allowing Saudi Arabia to make a fist of their matches.
The 34-year-old Al-Hilal defender is a leader at the back and will be counted on to help keep out more fancied forwards.
#RUSKSA | NEWS
Argentina’s Nestor Pitana has been assigned as the referee for the Opening Match of the 2018 FIFA#WorldCuppic.twitter.com/sS2OAuUSx3
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 12, 2018
KEY OPTA STATS:
– Russia and Saudi Arabia’s only previous encounter was in October 1993; the Saudis won 4-2 at home in a friendly.
– 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.
– Russia are winless in their last five games at the World Cup (D2 L3). In fact, Russia’s only two wins at the World Cup since the collapse of the Soviet Union were against African teams (6-1 v Cameroon in 1994, 2-0 v Tunisia in 2002).
– 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.