Lowly-ranked Rus­sians, Saudis meet to kick T

The Myanmar Times - - World Cup 2018 -

he World Cup is set to start and fin­ish with games at the op­po­site ends of the spec­trum.

The low­est-ranked teams at the tour­na­ment will meet in the opener Thurs­day when Rus­sia hosts Saudi Ara­bia at Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow, which is also venue for the July 15 fi­nal.

The No. 70-ranked Rus­sians got an au­to­matic spot as tour­na­ment host and the Saudis, at No. 67, have the low­est rank­ing of the 31 coun­tries which se­cured places via qual­i­fy­ing. They’re the long­est of long shots to reach the fi­nal.

The home team will likely need to win to have a re­al­is­tic hope of ad­vanc­ing from Group A, and is ex­pected to have Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the crowd for sup­port as it bids to end a win­less streak of seven games. Only one World Cup host na­tion has failed to get past the group stage — South Africa in 2010.

The other two teams in the group, Egypt and Uruguay, boast star for­wards in Mo­hamed Salah and Luis Suarez who could cause ma­jor prob­lems for the Rus­sia and Saudi de­fenses.

The Saudis lost their last three games but re­main up­beat at their first World Cup ap­pear­ance for 12 years.

CLASH OF COACHES Juan Antonio Pizzi and Rus­sia’s Stanislav Cherch­esov bring very dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties and coach­ing tac­tics to the tour­na­ment.

Pizzi won the 2016 Copa Amer­ica ti­tle with Chile us­ing an all-ac­tion style with con­stant pres­sure on the op­po­si­tion. He’ll strug­gle to repli­cate that with a Saudi team he took over af­ter it had qual­i­fied for the World Cup.

Cherch­esov fa­vors a more de­fen­sive ap­proach. Cherch­esov, known for his prickly de­meanor in in­ter­views, re­sponded to ques­tions about what he’d say to Rus­sian fans who are ner­vous about their team’s poor form by say­ing he’s “no psy­chol­o­gist, to go around calm­ing peo­ple down.”

RUS­SIA’S RE­PLACE­MENTS In­juries dis­rupted Rus­sia’s World Cup prepa­ra­tions, with for­ward Alexan­der Koko­rin and de­fend­ers Ge­orgy Dzhikiya and Vik­tor Vasin sus­tain­ing se­vere knee in­juries ear­lier this year.

That forced Cherch­esov into some late shake-ups. Ex­pect Fy­o­dor Smolov to start up front and for more tin­ker­ing with the de­fense. Cherch­esov aban­doned his usual three-man back­line with wing-backs in fa­vor of a four-man de­fense against Aus­tria last month, but Rus­sia lost 1-0 and failed to reg­is­ter a shot on tar­get.

VIN­TAGE The av­er­age age of play­ers in the Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia squads is al­most 29 — among the old­est in the tour­na­ment — and each boasts a pair of play­ers with more than 100 in­ter­na­tional ap­pear­ances.

For the Rus­sians, there’s cap­tain and goal­keeper Igor Ak­in­feev with 105 caps, plus the 38-year-old cen­tral de­fender Sergei Ig­na­she­vich (121).

Osama Haw­sawi has played 135 times for Saudi Ara­bia, and mid­fielder Taiseer Al-Jas­sim has 132 caps.

DOP­ING SHADOW Rus­sian foot­ball was em­broiled in the coun­try’s dop­ing scan­dal, with whistle­blower Grig­ory Rod­chenkov claim­ing his Moscow lab­o­ra­tory cov­ered up failed drug tests.

Rod­chenkov has said one player ben­e­fited from the cover-up, but didn’t iden­tify him or spec­ify whether the player made Rus­sia’s fi­nal 23-man World Cup squad.

De­fender Rus­lan Kam­bolov, who was in the pre­lim­i­nary squad, was in­ves­ti­gated by FIFA over al­leged dop­ing, but lawyers said FIFA dropped the case. FIFA hasn’t con­firmed that.

– AP

Photo: AP

In this June 8, 2018 file photo, Saudi Ara­bia’s Salem Al-Dawsari, right, du­els for the ball with Ger­many’s Joshua Kim­mich dur­ing a friendly soc­cer match be­tween Ger­many and Saudi Ara­bia at BayArena in Lev­erkusen, Ger­many, in prepa­ra­tion for the 2018...

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