Russia vs Saudi Arabia Preview: Hosts Russia take on resilient Saudi Arabia in World Cup opener

Russia vs Saudi Arabia Preview: Hosts Russia take on resilient Saudi Arabia in World Cup opener

Igor Akinfeev and co. welcome a Saudi Arabian side that is likely to be considered the underdog in this World Cup curtain-raiser.

Ninad Barbadikar

FIFA World Cup 2018 hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia in the opening-day fixture of the tournament. The Russians open their campaign against the ambitious Saudi Arabian side at the Luzhniki Stadium in a game that could prove vital to their qualification from the group.

The pressure on Russia to perform will be far more than their visitors. As the host nations, they will look to give their fans something to be proud of. 

As for the Saudi Arabian side, anything they get in terms of points will be a matter of joy for them. They have thoroughly embraced the underdog tag and battled their way to Russia and will look to make a positive impression on the world stage once again after 12 years.

Russia in poor form ahead of the curtain raiser

Coach Stanislav Chereshov has had to deal with injuries to key players in the run-in to the World Cup.

Since Euro 2016, Russia's team has seen a drastic transformation after the Ignashevich brothers retired in 2016. A switch to a back-three has been a shrewd move from Chereshov as most of his players play in that system at club level.

Sergei Ignashevich's return might be a blessing in disguise to a young and inexperienced defence. The wingbacks Alexandr Samedov and Yuri Zhirkov are well into their 30's, and will expect to be first-choice starters in Russia.

In terms of their form, Chereshov's men have had little joy since their victory against New Zealand in the Confederations Cup, last year. Without having to worry about qualification, Chereshov's men have come up against some real heavyweights in the past few months.

Defeats against France, Brazil and Portugal may have affected Russia's momentum, however, they will look to use their home advantage and come up with the goods when it matters.

A recent 1-1 draw with Turkey was all but a formality for Russia. However, goals have been a serious problem for them. With the absence of key forward Alexander Kokorin through injury, the burden of goal-scoring will fall on FC Krasnodar striker Fyodor Smolov.

Saudi Arabia looking to spoil the hosts' opening day

Juan Antonio Pizzi and his Saudi Arabian side have had an encouraging improvement over the past few months.

The Argentine boss has made them better in possession and not just a counter-attacking team anymore, as they were under Bert Van Marwijk.

Mohamed Al-Sahlawi was the team's star during their qualifying phase, topping the scoring charts alongside UAE striker Ahmed Khalil. During their qualifying phase, Pizzi's men only lost three games and qualified for the World Cup as runners-up behind Japan in their group.

A recent 2-1 loss to Germany will have provided a morale boost for them. The world champions almost continued their winless run and Saudi Arabia were denied a point which they could've gotten had Mats Hummels' shirt pull on  Al-Sahlawi been called by the referee for a penalty.

Nonetheless, this Saudi Arabian side remains a tough unit with experience at the back and some exciting talent up front. Osama Hawsawi's experience at the back will be key, alongside him Omar Hawsawi will look to keep out the talented attackers they will face at the World Cup.

In terms of attacking talents, Salem al-Dawsari, Yahya al-Shehri and Fahad al-Muwallad will all look to assist Al-Sahlawi in his attempts to get the goals for their side. Pizzi's side make quick transitions from defence to attack and if they are to stand any chance of hurting teams, then the front four will have to be on top-form against some quality defences in Uruguay, Russia and Egypt.