THE World Cup kicks-off on Thursday as hosts Russia face Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Ben Levene (@BenLevene96) shares his best bets.
Russia v Saudi Arabia | Thursday 14th June 2018, 16:00 | ITV
It’s finally here…
I’ve had a while to digest this one, and my mind has probably changed as often as Gareth Southgate has tinkered with his back-three.
A strong case can be made against hosts Russia. Host status means they did not have to quality, and so the subsequent lack of competitive football is definitely a mark against Stanislav Cherchesov’s outfit. Friendly results – not that they are the be all and end all – haven’t been much more impressive. Russia have won just one of eight.
Fortunately, they couldn’t have asked for a better fixture first up – cynics will even claim that’s the reason they got it.
Regardless, World Cup hosts have historically performed disproportionately well. Twenty of 21 have progressed from their group, and the exception South Africa exceeded expectation too. Bafana Bafana achieved four points from a group containing Mexico, Uruguay, and France.
Meanwhile, 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich came out of international retirement last month to replace the crocked Ruslan Kambolov. Ignashevich had called it a day alongside the Berezutsky brothers in what was a changing of guard.
Cherchesov will be hoping his decision to evolve the national team will pay dividends this Thursday. Russia are likely to line up with a back-three who possess a combined 38 caps. The system aims to bring the best out of the highly-rated Aleksandr Golovin and enigma Alan Dzagoev.
The Green Falcons
Saudi Arabia will appear this summer after a three-tournament absence having qualified above Australia. Argentina Juan Antonio Pizzi will be well aware of the need to keep things tight, after all, the Green Falcons averaged more shots and shots-on-target against than any other Asian qualifier.
Key-man Nawaf Al-Abed was described as one of the best performers in Asian qualification and his creative talent will be a miss. He top-scored for the Saudi side in the preliminaries, but will be absent this summer through injury.
Neither side should turn up unprepared. They’ve known about this game for 195 days.
Russia can come through unscathed
Under 2.5 Goals at 4/5 (Blacktype) and Russia to win the second-half at 4/5 (Betfair) came under consideration, but the even-money (Bet Victor) available for a Russia win to nil is the angle I'm happy to attack.
Russia have played against some elite-level opposition, and although results haven’t looked great, it could stand them in good stead for Thursday. Indeed, Cherchesov’s men have found the net against the likes of Spain and France over the past 12-months.
At the last three World Cups, 9/21 (43%) of games between European and Asian or Oceanic sides have seen Europe emerge winners without conceding and I believe Russia can extend that figure. The 43% includes two World Cups where European teams did not boast continent advantage, let alone home advantage.
Since the format change in 1998, at the two World Cups held in Europe, European sides have won 10 of 14 (72%) games against AFC or OFC nations ‘to nil'.
We’ve already noted that the Green Falcons are without their key attacking cog. Further to this, 11 of 12 goals in their last 11 friendlies came against sides who did not qualify for the World Cup. Saudi Arabia’s 84th minute charge against Germany last Friday came after Joachim Low had made six changes, while five days prior to that they lost 3-0 to Peru in Switzerland.
Thursday’s opener takes place in Moscow, so travel won’t be an issue for Russia who are based in the Moscow region. However, Saudi Arabia are based in Saint Petersburg, which is approximately over 700km away from Thursday’s venue.
Travel coupled with the physical and mental effects of Ramadan reinforce any edge opposing the Green Falcons.
The 80,000 Luzhniki Stadium is the largest of this summer’s 12 venues, and no doubt the Russian fans will make things as hostile as possible to get behind their nation.
Russia v Saudi Arabia – Russia to win ‘to nil' (1/1 Bet Victor)