CARD KING Gavin Murphy (GamePlanGavin) has analysed the bookings markets ahead of Thursday's 2018 World Cup curtain-raiser between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia from Moscow.
Russia v Saudi Arabia | Thursday 14th June 2018, 16:00 | ITV
After all the exciting build up, the 2018 World Cup finally gets underway in Moscow as nervous hosts Russia entertain Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Perhaps not an ‘A-list' fixture but an intriguing one nonetheless for card punters. In a section featuring Uruguay and Egypt, both teams will be acutely aware of the importance of this opening outing – lose it and they are probably already eliminated…
Clues from previous opening World Cup contests
There have been no previous meaningful meetings between these two sides so we need to delve a little deeper than usual to find an angle of attack. Do previous World Cup curtain-raisers give us a clue?
The opening match in 2014 saw hosts Brazil defeat Croatia 3-1 in a game that saw four yellow cards shown by Japanese whistle-blower, Yuichi Nishimura. Each side collected two cautions with three of the four arriving after the half-time break.
In 2010, South Africa and Mexico played out a 1-1 draw. That match was officiated by the dour Uzbekistan referee Ravshan Irmatov. He issued four yellows with again, each team receiving share the card count.
I was slightly surprised to see four bookings being the norm in opening matches in the past two World Cups, especially when we consider that the two officials involved are definitely Unders material.
Beware of VAR
The overall trend for cards in recent World Cups has been for fewer to be issued. However, VAR is in operation at this tournament and frankly nobody knows the impact that could have.
I would certainly be cautious of backing Unders pre-kick off and Unders in the in-play markets because of the potential for a red card to be dished out long after the event. At some point during this World Cup, history will be made.
Might it even be made in match one?
The Video Assistant Referee – a current or former top official – is in place to check decisions on four sorts of incidents:
- Goals and offences leading up to goals.
- Penalty decisions and offences leading up to penalty decisions.
- Direct red card incidents (second yellow cards are not reviewed, bizarrely).
- Cases of mistaken identity.
It has also recently been announced that red cards can be given retrospectively by a VAR decision, meaning a referee could send off a player even if play has restarted after the incident occurred.
Such decisions are likely to be made for the off-the-ball incidents that may be missed by the referees on the pitch and only in the case of serious red card offences.
VAR may tack a few minutes onto stoppage time to make up for delays, but it shouldn't go on for extended periods of time.
Thursday’s man in the middle
The referee for this opening clash is former actor Nestor Pitana.
The Argentine averaged 63.6 Bookings Point in the qualification phase. That was the second-highest of the 36 officials originally selected for this World Cup. In 2017/18, he averaged 54.5 points across all competitions.
However, the 42-year-old from the Misiones region only averaged 20 points per-game at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Coincidentally, his opening match in 2014 also featured Russia and he issued four cards that day as they drew 1-1 with South Korea.
Saudi Arabia averaged a lowly 10.3 bookings points per-game on the road to Russia. In their key qualification match against Japan they collected a measly one yellow card in the reverse encounter. The first fixtures had a bit more spicy with centre-half Omar Hawsawi being sent off. Left-back, Hassan Muath Fallatah and midfield schemer, Al-Khaibri also received cautions.
Context needs to be given to their qualification stats, of course, due to Asia having the lowest average make-up (33.8 Bookings Points) of any of the regions. That said, a leopard rarely changes its spots and Saudi Arabia look good generally for a low number of cards, I believe.
In their last nine outings, the Green Falcons have collected just 11 cards, while Russia did not have to qualify as hosts and so there are no qualification statistics for them.
Recent cards form
In warm-up friendly matches – which are notoriously lenient and not necessarily a great measurement (but what else have we got?) – the hosts collected two yellow cards v Austria, two v France, two v Turkey and zero v Brazil.
Not the greatest sample size but I feel it does support trying to get with the Russians a bit in the cards markets against their opposition.
The hosts are warm favourites to win and will be keen to protect any lead they can manufacture. They will also have to deal with pressure, expectation and the delay of an opening ceremony. They could be a nervous wreck come kick-off.
The betting angle
If it is reasonable to expect four cards again in this curtain-raiser then there is a decent chance that the under pressure Russians will collect at least half of them. Cynics will argue that some referees may look favourably on the hosts.
Personally, I think the Russians will be delighted to get an opening day win and some cards are likely for ‘taking one for the team' to get the job done.
The stats don't support Saudi Arabian cards at all and I feel that Russia are more streetwise than their opponents and will do whatever is necessary.
I wouldn’t talk anyone off backing Russia for most cards (13/5 Bet365) but I like the look of Over 1.5 Russian Cards. This would have won in 6/6 matches that Pitana covered during qualification and is worth supporting at 5/4 with Bet365.
Russia v Saudi Arabia – Russia to receive Over 1.5 Cards (5/4 Bet365)