Aleksandr Golovin and Fahad Al Muwallad among key players as Russia face Saudi Arabia in World Cup opener

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Host nation Russia take on Saudi Arabia in the World Cup 2018 opener at the Luzhniki Stadium.

With a global audience tuning in, it’s a chance for the two sets of players to leave an impression.

Here’s a look at some of the key players who could make the difference in the ecounter.

ALEKSANDR GOLOVIN

Aleksandr Golovin is one of the few bright sparks in Russia’s side. He won the Under-17 European Championship in 2013 and has been regarded as the country’s most promising talent since.

His outstanding form for CSKA Moscow this season in which he scored five Russian Premier League goals has seen him break into the national set-up’s starting XI. Golovin has excellent technique, dribbling ability and a dangerous shot from range while his quick and neat passing causes problems in the final third.

Alexander Golovin.

Aleksandr Golovin.

FAHAD AL MUWALLAD

At just 23, Muwallad has quickly grown into a football icon in Saudi Arabia and player upon which much of their World Cup dreams rest.

A tricky winger by trade, his blistering pace and eye for goal have seen him take pride of place at the tip of the Green Falcons’ attack. Mohammad Al Sahlawi’s dip in form has seen Muwallad take over as the lone striker, complementing his side’s counter-attacking style.

Fahad Al Muwallad

Fahad Al Muwallad.

YASSER AL SHAHRANI

The Al-Hilal defender offers plenty in defence as well as attack. He is a formidable full-back but is renowned for his excellent dribbling ability and desire to get forward.

Al Shahrani is crucial to Saudi’s counter-attacking play as he sets the pacey Salem Al Dawsari off down the left flank with long balls forward. He is also versatile though and can play on either side of the defence.

Al Shahrani.

Al Shahrani.

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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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