World Cup Preview: Russia v Saudi Arabia

Who? Russia - Saudi Arabia
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? June 14, 17:00 (CET local time)

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

Here we go again! 4 years of anticipation are finally over and suddenly we stare in the eyes of the World Cup opening match. If the football world has waited long for this day, more so have the Russians, that will host a major tournament for the first time. That was officially announced in December 2010 and handed Russia more than 7 years to prepare efficiently.

But are they ready? Unfortunately, it doesn’t look so. Despite being drawn in a comfortable group (which always seems to be the case for host nations), Russia are projected to struggle to qualify further. Only a decade ago they were Euro semi-finalists, but much has changed. To understand that, it’s enough to look at their recent friendlies form that is counting 7 games without a win.

The main problem of the Russian football is the absurd amount of money spent by owners in the local league in previous years. Although this helps to attract foreign stars and improve the football level, there is a major downside for the drive and competitiveness of the Russian footballers who can earn very high wages at home and stay in their comfort zone. Alan Dzagoev, for instance, has never left CSKA Moscow even though he was considered a wonderkid on a global level. Similarly, Yuri Zhirkov did tried his luck in England but returned to the homeland quickly. Evidently, only two squad players earn their living abroad. This type of career management has led to stagnation in the development of the Russian footballer and directly damages the national team. 

However, coach Stanislav Cherchesov might hope experience would provide an x-factor – the Russian squad is one of the oldest this summer with average age of 28.8, and he knows a win on Thursday can change the whole narrative of the Sbornaya.

Saudi Arabia (Uri Levy)

"I'm very optimistic. No one gives us a chance, our players had a disappointing year with their loan deals in Spain, but the truth is that Russia can be surprised in the first game”, said Khaled Abdel Rahman, A Saudi fan with a huge smile outside the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow at Monday afternoon. “The Russians are a weak and fearful team, and against Egypt? Well it's an Arab derby, so everything is open”, he added.

Khaled’s thoughts are not there for granted. Not because of his team's ability, the opposite - the Saudis doesn't have much to lose in this World Cup. The betting agencies give them the lowest chances to win alongside with Panama, and, as Khaled mentioned, this was not a good season for the big stars of Saudi Arabia.

Though, in the last preparation friendly against Germany, although the Saudis conceded twice in an early stage, but looked solid altogether, made it very difficult for the Germans to score more and even got one goal back. “Honestly, I was surprised by the ability," Khaled added. "The goal came as a result of a good pressure, exactly like it came against Italy. These things weren’t happening in a Saudi national team before. When I saw that, I said that perhaps the time in Spain did something good eventually,” he laughed.

After a short period, it seems that Juan Antonio Pizzi is starting to leave his mark on the Saudi players. It is true, they are not favorites in Group A, but they have no pressure and what is certain is that Pizzi will do everything he can to prevent a humiliation in this World Cup. If it is up to him, the 0-8 against Germany & Miro Klose in 2002 will be a foregone memory. Pizzi's Saudi Arabia is a more combative team than what appears on paper.

But will they be able to steal the show in the opening game of the World Cup?
If you ask Khalid, he will tell you: “I told you man, everything is possible!”

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