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FIFA World Cup 2018: Russia, Saudi Arabia square off in opener

The two teams kick off the 2018 World Cup with their Group A match at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Photograph: (WION Web Team)

WION Web Team Russia Jun 13, 2018, 05.07 PM (IST)

Russia are the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup and yet, they will be expected to provide a nation-lifting performance against Saudi Arabia in Thursday's 2018 FIFA World Cup opener. 

Their previous games, including the friendly matches they have played, they are somewhat ill-equipped to deliver the fireworks expected on such an occasion. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia are just three places better off in the FIFA rankings and present an opportunity for Russia to bank a precious three points at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

They are back on the big stage for the first time since 2006 but are without the man who got them there, Dutchman Bert van Marwijk having stepped aside last September.

Edgardo Bauza lasted barely two months in the position before he was cast aside in favour of former Chile boss Juan Antonio Pizzi, who is yet to inspire belief this Saudi side can match the efforts of the team that reached the last 16 in 1994.

Pizzi has presided over nine friendlies in 2018 and won just three, although that recent record is more encouraging in light of Russia's seven-match winless streak.

Russia's scoring problems are obvious, with just two goals netted in this year's four friendlies and no more than one in any of their last six matches at major tournaments.

The team mostly relies on players Fedor Smolov, Igor Akinfeev and Aleksei Miranchuk.

Striker Smolov is the team the team eyes on to score. The 28-year-old boasts 52 goals from his last three seasons in Russia's top flight and has reportedly attracted Premier League interest.

Saudi Arabia prompted the country's sports authority to strike a pact to send players on loan to Spain to gain experience at the top level.

Fahad Al-Muwallad, whose goal against Japan last September clinched qualification, was one of nine players involved in the agreement but it was derided as a "fiasco".

Muwallad, who was on loan at Levante, and winger Salem Al-Dawsari, at Villarreal, only played for a few minutes at the end of the season.

Attacking midfielder Yahia Al-Sheri, who went to Leganes, never played in a match.

The country has spent more than $13 billion on preparations for the big event, and President Vladimir Putin called on the team to pull themselves together as they look to progress from a section also featuring Uruguay and Egypt.

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