After what feels like an eternity, the 2018 FIFA World Cup gets underway on Thursday, with hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow (Kick-off 4:00pm).
The excitement around the Russians hosting the tournament for the first time has arguably done the national team a favour, with the team struggling for form coming into the match and many fans, including President Putin himself expecting very little from them.
It’s always tricky for host nations to get any meaningful football under their belts in the two years prior, although if their appearance in the Confederations Cup is anything to go by, they will at least reach the second round in relatively sedate fashion. Form is paramount however and Russia are struggling, as they made it seven matches in the draw with Turkey.
Saudi Arabia come into their fifth FIFA World Cup Finals still hoping to emulate the 1994 side that reached the last sixteen by beating Belgium. In fact the Asian side have played nine group games in finals since then and failed to win any of them, while conceding twenty-six times in those games.
Spanish manager, Juan Antonio Pizzi has worked hard to make the Saudis a cohesive unit and the five warm-up games played since the beginning of May, have shown a less defensively naive side. Two goal wins over Algeria and Greece also highlight the talent in the side, with Yehya Al-Shehri good enough to play in Spanish La Liga nowadays and narrow losses to Italy and Germany also show the maturity needed against better teams.
In terms of the match, I expect a close fought affair, with Russia (2/5 favourites) eventually coming out on top. This is a huge game for the nation and I do not expect the hosts to be at their most fluent on the pitch, while Saudi Arabia will sit back and look to counter when possible.
Russia are not renowned for having many attempts at goal, with barely three shots on target on average in the last seven games played, however what they do have is an in form striker with Fyodor Smolov who has hit fifty-two goals in seventy-one appearances for Krasnodar in the Russian League and three of the last five national team goals. Smolov at 23/10 to score first looks a strong option here.
Overall this is unlikely to be a match that sets the tournament alight, but if the hosts do pick up the victory, it may just encourage home fans to back their team, which as hosts will only improve the tournament.
Fyodor Smolov First Goalscorer @23/10
Russia To Win And Under 2.5 Total Goals @17/10
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