Russia must end winless streak against Saudi Arabia in World Cup 2018 opener

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Stanislav Cherchesov

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 talking points ahead of the encounter.

About time to end winless streak

Russia haven’t won a single game in eight months and what better time for the host nation to finally bring an end to that unwanted run than in the opening match of the World Cup?

A winless streak of seven matches beats both Russian and Soviet records and isn’t altogether surprising considering they’re the lowest ranked team among the 32 at the tournament, slumping to 70th in the world according to the latest FIFA standings.

A disruptive build-up to the World Cup with head coach Stanislav Cherchesov falling out with several key players hasn’t done them any good, and has made for a depleted squad short of quality.

However, with Saudi Arabia to play first, they’re presented with the best opportunity to finally get a victory under their belts. The Middle East outfit are ranked only three places above the hosts. There is also the small matter of home court advantage that Russia will have going for them.

If they can secure a win against the Eagles, they can harbour hopes of progressing to the round of 16.

Russian media though has not painted a picture of optimism, asking instead if things can possibly get any worse.

“We have to take all the criticism and turn it into something positive,” Cherchesov told reporters.

“The first game will be the most important one because it will leave its stamp on the entire campaign,” he added.

Meanwhile, a supposedly clairvoyant cat has predicted a win for Russia in the first match.

Achilles, a deaf white cat and the official animal soothsayer for the tournament chose a bowl of food bearing Russia’s flag rather than that of Saudi Arabia.

Irrelevant that may be but the hosts will take encouragement wherever they can find it.

Achilles the cat.

Achilles the cat.

Less than ideal Saudi preparation

When Fahad Al Muwallad fired home a sensational winner against Japan to secure an automatic World Cup spot in qualifying, the general feeling around the national team was one of optimism.

However, the unceremonious departure of Bert van Marwijk left the team in disarray while Edgardo Bauza’s brief stint in charge didn’t help matters.

Juan Antonio Pizzi has since steadied the ship but the decision to send several key players on loan to La Liga clubs in January has not proved to be fruitful.

Al Muwallad, Yahya Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari were all shipped to Spain but struggled to secure playing time while Al Nassr striker Mohammad Al Sahlawi’s poor form has been a concern as well.

With Al Hilal midfielder Nawaf Al Abed missing the tournament through injury, the issues for Saudi heading into the World Cup have piled up.

Saudi players carry Bert van Marwijk as they celebrate World Cup qualification.

Saudi players carry Bert van Marwijk as they celebrate World Cup qualification.

Saudis are no pushovers

Pizzi’s side are undoubtedly one of the tournament’s minnows but they’ve shown that they are no pushovers. Germany, the World Cup holders and one of the favourites this time around as well, can certainly attest to that.

Joachim Low’s well-drilled machine, that won every one of their qualifying games, could only sneak a 2-1 win past the Saudis, needing an own goal from Omar Hawsawi to help them along as well.

Germany fielded a full-strength side but had their back-line exposed on more than one occasion by Saudi’s counter-attacks.

Their darting runs forward proved difficult to track and they managed to registered four out of 12 shots on target. They are lacking in quality but are well equipped to punish complacency.

Saudi Arabia caused Germany plenty of problems.

Saudi Arabia caused Germany plenty of problems.

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Mohamed Salah joins Egypt training ahead of World Cup after returning from injury

Mohamed Salah looks fit and raring to go in Egypt training.

Mohamed Salah joined the rest of Egypt’s squad in training on Wednesday, laying to rest any lingering fears that the injury he suffered in the Champions League final would keep him out of the World Cup.

The 25-year-old Liverpool forward suffered a dislocated shoulder on May 26 in a tangle with Real Madrid‘s Spanish defender Sergio Ramos, and at the time there were serious concerns he would have to miss this summer’s tournament in Russia altogether.

On Tuesday, however, Salah looked in good spirits as he trained with his Egypt teammates, and he may even be fit for their opener against Uruguay on Friday.

There’s been no official update as to when Salah will return, but the Egypt talisman will hope to be back in the thick of the action soon.

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Real Madrid's Achraf Hakimi part of youthful Morocco side looking to light up World Cup

Matt Jones 13/06/2018
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Real Madrid's Achraf Hakimi is part of an effervescent young Morocco side.

The glamour tie of the opening round of World Cup fixtures may well be Portugal and Spain, but that is not to say Morocco v Iran is any less exciting.

It’s a chance for both to get a foothold in the tournament, something they will undoubtedly need as they then face the two European heavyweights with the seemingly impossible task of taking points from them and heading into the knockout rounds.

Here are some of the key tactical talking points ahead of the encounter.

Defensively sound Iran can’t afford to be unadventurous

Mehdi Taremi

Mahdi Taremi.

Both sides boast attacking prowess but it is their defensive solidity that earned them places in Russia and is their greatest strength.

Six clean sheets for Morocco and just five goals conceded in 18 games for Iran during the qualification stages prove this.

Both backlines will come under stern examination you would think from European giants Spain and Portugal – but with the two smaller nations meeting in the Group B opener, their creative players will have to take centre stage.

Iran played ultra-defensive football four years ago in Brazil and it didn’t work as they got dumped out of Group F, netting a joint low single goal alongside Honduras and Cameroon.

Four years on, they are still solid under Carlos Queiroz but offer far more going forward, with Sardar Azmoun, referred to, at least in his homeland, as the ‘Iranian Messi’, having emerged as a goalscorer of some substance.

He will be aided by the Eredivisie’s top scorer Alireza Jahanbakhsh, former Fulham man Ashkan Dejagah and Mehdi Taremi who form a tantalising attacking quartet.

With the huge rise in their attacking potential, we will likely see much more from them moving forward.

Morocco’s youth of the nation

Ziyech (1)

Herve Renard has picked a vibrant and effervescent young squad to take on the world in Russia – but there might be some concerns over inexperience.

The Atlas Lions’ squad has an average age of 27.4 years, placing them 22nd in terms of the youngest – England’s is the youngest at 26.

But only two teams – England and Tunisia – have a squad with fewer caps on average per player (20) than Morocco’s 22.

Real Madrid starlet Achraf Hakimi (just 19) is set to line up at left-back against Iran, while Ajax’s wantaway wizard Hakim Ziyech (25) and Schalke’s fresh-faced Amine Harit (20) will likely start in the two wide positions, with 24-year-old Ayoub El Kaabi ploughing a lone furrow up front – he has 11 goals in his first 10 national team appearances.

What these talented youngsters lack in experience, however, they will make up with pace and sheer excitement, with Ziyech and Harit coming off impressive domestic campaigns in the Netherlands and Germany respectively.

Ziyech, in particular, is already in demand coming into the tournament with Liverpool and Roma eying a deal for him.

It must also be pointed out that the youngsters have old heads like Mbark Boussoufa, Younes Belhanda, Karim El Ahmadi and skipper Medhi Benatia to anchor soaring talent.

Iran reaping rewards of long term stability

Carlos Queiroz

Queiroz is one of the 2018 World Cup’s longest-serving coaches – having been at the helm of Team Melli for seven years. In international football that is a veritable lifetime.

Among the long-term benefits of sticking with the same manager is being able to properly get to grips with the role and stamping your mark.

The 65-year-old is hugely experienced having managed Real Madrid, Portugal and been assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

Since 2011 he has developed a well-functioning football machine that builds from the back and champions 4-2-3-1 with a reliance on the counter-attack.

However, while this has worked very well so far, he has noticeably decided to employing much more aggressive tactics in recent friendlies, no doubt preparing his side for a glut of goals that will be needed to combat opponents in this aggressive looking group.

He is also renowned for introducing Iranian diaspora players to the squad including German Iranians Daniel Davari and Dejagah, Dutch Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad, Swedish Iranians Omid Nazari and Saman Ghoddos, and Iranian American Steven Beitashour among others – something that has raised the country’s profile.

Renard is the Atlas Lions’ mane man

 Herve Renard

Renard’s coaching career has been almost as colourful as his striking tan.

Having coached a myriad of nations and teams since taking up his first post with SC Draguignan in his native France in 1999, it is in charge of national teams that he has earned most acclaim – lifting two Africa Cup of Nations crowns with the Ivory Coast and Zambia (he is the only coach to win the competition with two different teams).

The one-time Cambridge United manager returned to club management after leading Les Elephants to their second AFCON title but was sacked after only four months in charge of Lille in September 2015.

He returned to the international arena the following February and, in charge of the Atlas Lions, tamed his old side the Ivory Coast on the way to reaching Russia – taking Morocco to their first World Cup since 1998.

Renard has instilled a fighting spirit and solidity in Morocco to end the country’s lengthy World Cup absence.

Although there is a healthy sprinkling of youth to the new-look Morocco, Renard asked Boussoufa to step back from his attacking duties and, along with Karim El Ahmadi, the experienced pair plus Belhanda complete a tenacious triangle that presses the opposition when Morocco lose possession.

He also moved Los Blancos right-back Hakimi to the left of his back four, switching midfielder Romain Saiss to central defence to utilise his height.

Morocco were the first African country to top a World Cup group in Mexico 32 years ago and are appearing at their fifth finals. 1986 was the only time they emerged from the group and they will not be fancied by many to negotiate their way out of 2018’s Group of Death.

But they are probably slightly better equipped to deal with the might of Spain and Portugal than Iran. If he can lead the Atlas Lions out of this perilous situation, it will rank among Renard and the country’s greatest feats.

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