The World Cup 2018 is upon us and kicks off with hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium.
How both sides approach the tournament’s curtain raiser will be intriguing as it could make or break their chances of advancing from Group A.
Here are a few tactical talking points ahead of the encounter.
Russia sticking with three at the back
Despite experimenting with a 4-1-4-1 system in their penultimate warm-up game against Austria, which ended in a 1-0 defeat, Stanislav Cherchesov is expected to deploy a 3-4-2-1 formation when his side face Saudi Arabia. It’s a system he has consistently used and reverted to in a 1-1 draw with Turkey last Tuesday.
Russia retain a flat back five without the ball but the wing-backs push up to flank the midfield in possession while one of the midfielders, usually Roman Zobnin, drops back to shield the back-line. The central defensive three is stretched as a result of the two outside centre-backs pulling wide to create passing options.
Saudi’s swift counter-attacks
Mohammad Al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals during Saudi’s qualifying campaign and was the joint-top scorer overall but a recent drought on the international stage has seen him lose his place to electric Al-Ittihad winger Fahad Al Muwallad.
The 23-year-old’s searing pace being deployed up front has sharpened the Green Falcons’ counter-attacking threat with experienced midfielder Taisir Al-Jassim pulling the strings in possession and looking to release Muwallad quickly.
Saudi look to absorb pressure and then use the flanks to counter-attack as well. Left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani consistently attempts to release pacey winger Salem Al-Dawsari with long balls down the left flank.
Going long to Smolov
Even if Russia enjoy a good share of possession against Saudi, it may not work in their favour. The hosts are known to be disjointed in possession and if the Middle East outfit can neutralise the creative influence of Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Golovin, Cherchesov’s side will find it difficult to pass their way through their opponents.
In such a scenario, Russia will resort to getting the ball wide to the wing-backs or one of the outside centre-backs and play long balls into the space down the flanks for lone striker Fyodor Smolov to chase down.
Morocco take on Iran in the opening match of Group B in Russia on Friday. And while most fans and pundits will salivate over the two super powers in Spain and Portugal, there’s plenty to marvel at in the other two teams.
The Atlas Lions tangle with Team Melli on Friday, both teams offering an impressive array of firepower going forward.
Here, Matt Jones takes a look at the key players for each side ahead of their crucial opening clash.
SARDAR AZMOUN v AYOUB EL KAABI
Two players who provide a mirror image of each other in more ways than one.
There is just over a year in age difference between the two players, who have both taken to international football like ducks to water.
Each youngster will also carry the weighty goalscoring burden of their nations into the World Cup – but you get the feeling neither feel the pressure that much.
The 23-year-old Azmoun has rocketed in 23 goals since his 2014 debut for Team Melli. These goals have come in just 33 caps.
The 6ft 1in striker’s first passion as a child was volleyball as his father was a prominent player and his aerial ability is a huge feature of his play. He puts his powerful, lean frame to good use and has been likened to Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the air, but with the running ability, supposedly, akin to Argentine star Messi.
Of more pressing concern is a very barren season at club level, where he has netted just five goals in 28 games for Rubin Kazan. Contrast that to El Kaabi who has 22 goals in 38 league starts for his club since a 2017 move from Racing de Casablanca.
Azmoun has scored 16 goals in his last 22 Iran caps, however.
El Kaabi’s early exposure to the big stage has produced an even more explosive reaction – the 24-year-old who plays for RS Berkane in his homeland has incredibly plundered 11 goals in just 10 games.
The 24-year-old has burst onto the scene in 2018 internationally – leaping to prominence after being selected in Morocco’s African Nations Championship squad. Hosts Morocco lifted the title with a convincing 4-0 win over Nigeria in the final. El Kaabi rifled in nine goals in six games to be named both top scorer and best player.
MBARK BOUSSOUFA v EHSAN HAJSAFI
Boussoufa isn’t the name on the lips of most fans or experts when coming to analyse Morocco, due to the fact they have a wealth of attacking talent, as highlighted by El Kaabi’s meteoric rise.
Just behind him, expect Younes Belhanda to play a key role, with Herve Renard expected to deploy the electric Sofyan Amrabat and Hakim Ziyech, of Ajax, as wingers.
But the 33-year-old Boussoufa is the heartbeat of the team, sitting in a slightly deeper role for his country than fans of UAE football will have enjoyed watching him occupy in two years with Abu Dhabi giants Al Jazira.
A silky footballer in the mould of Andres Iniesta, he is something of a journeyman having spent his senior career traversing Europe, including Belgium and Russia.
But he was honed at Ajax’s academy and also spent two formative years at Chelsea. He was a critical element in the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s charge to a first 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League title in six years.
He also led Jazira to the semi-finals of the World Cup (the club version) in December and set up Romarinho as Jazira audaciously took the lead against European champions Real Madrid – before Los Blancos were rescued by Gareth Bale’s 81st minute winner.
A small man (he stands just 5ft 6in tall) but in a squad full of youthful exuberance, much like at Jazira, his experience stands tall.
Similar to Boussoufa for Iran in terms of quality and importance, but someone perhaps not the first name most will look to, is coveted utility player Hajsafi.
The 28-year-old Olympiakos man is highly versatile and is able to fill a number of roles for Iran coach Carlos Queiroz. He can play as a left midfielder, left-back, defensive midfielder or winger.
Named by Goal as the most promising player in Asian football in 2009, Hajsafi has been a virtual ever present since 2008, shining on debut with two brilliant assists in Iran’s 3-2 win against Zambia.
HAKIM ZIYECH v ALIREZA JAHANBAKHSH
With scrutiny centreing on Spain and Portugal, it’s so easy to overlook the wealth of talent elsewhere in Group B – particularly in the attacking ranks of Iran and Morocco.
Ziyech comes into the tournament as one of the top players expected to move on after the summer as he has become embroiled in a bitter fallout with Ajax after declaring he wants to leave the Dutch giants.
He is not short of suitors with Roma already believed to be in advanced talks with his agents, €30-32 million said to be the offer to the Amsterdam outfit who have only just lost Justin Kluivert to the Eternal City.
Liverpool are the latest club linked with him in recent days as they perhaps search for a viable Nabil Fekir alternative.
The 25-year-old notched 11 goals and 15 assists in a blistering campaign in the Eredivisie and his dazzling dribbling poses a dilemma for opposition defences in Group B – even one as stingy during qualifying as Iran’s.
Team Melli have their own Dutch destroyer in Jahanbakhsh who took Holland by storm in 2017/18.
The 24-year-old notched an eye-popping 22 goals in 39 Eredivisie outings for AZ Alkmaar from attacking midfield – it was enough to see him come top of the league’s goalscoring charts.
He also weighed in with 12 assists, good enough for fourth most. Expect the 24-year-old to make his mark in Russia.
Mohamed Salah has returned to group training with Egypt ahead of their World Cup opener on Friday as he steps up his rehabilitation from a shoulder injury.
Pictures of the 25-year-old forward taking part in a session with his team-mates, and the message “Back @MoSalah to group training”, appeared on the Egypt national side’s official Twitter feed on Wednesday.
Salah suffered shoulder damage in the Champions League final on May 26 via a tangle with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos that led to the Liverpool man having to be substituted in the first half.
After initial fears, the Professional Footballer’s Association, Football Writers Association and Premier League player of the year would be ruled out of the World Cup, the Egyptian Football Federation announced it did not expect Salah to be sidelined for more than three weeks and he was named in the squad for the tournament in Russia.
Friday sees Egypt face Uruguay in Ekaterinburg. The sides are joined in Group A by hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia, who meet in the tournament’s first match a day earlier.
Egypt’s second game is on Monday against Russia in St Petersburg.