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.
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.
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.