Come Thursday afternoon, Russia and Saudi Arabia will have kicked off the 2018 World Cup. Close to a decade of waiting, building and marketing will be over. For all the shouting about boycotts, relocations, corruption and scandals, the host nation will begin the tournament against Saudi Arabia. As two of the weaker nations in the tournament, many fear this will be a damp squib.
With the superstition of the first game setting the tone for the tournament, that leaves some wondering what is to come. Russia arguably arrive into their own host tournament, the 2018 World Cup, with the worst squad they have ever had. Meanwhile, their opponents Saudi Arabia have genuine belief they can make it out of the group.
Russia have only Fedor Smolov to pin their hopes on. They’ll be hoping that, alongside the Krasnodar man, Aleksandr Kokorin can finally live up to the hype. Strange careers for the pair of them means the once-fabled duo up top are looking to salvage some respect for international careers yet to live up to their billing.
With twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk expected to deliver alongside fellow starlet Aleksandr Golovin, the pressure on the few talents Russia have is immense. Add in the loss of most of their recognised defence, and even the optimism around a decent midfield can’t stop Russian fans worrying.
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Still, despite the Saudi Arabia side posing some interesting threats, we’d suggest Russia will pick up their first – and perhaps only – three points of the tournament. Outrageously, it may be enough to see them through to the knockout phase given the sheer imbalance in the group.
Russia, though, do have some positive talent to hang their hat on in midfield. If the technical qualities of Dzagoev, Golovin and Miranchuk can combine with the experience of guys like Denis Cheryshev (despite only having 11 caps, he’s among their best players) and ex-Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov, they may have a chance. It’s a long shot, but Russia could at least kick off with a positive performance and result.
If they don’t, expect the neural tournament mood to sour quickly. Expectations aren’t high, but they are high enough to expect an opening win.