Rank outsiders to provide low-key start
MOSCOW: Nobody would have hand picked the tournament’s two worst teams to launch the 2018 World Cup, but when Russia and Saudi Arabia meet tomorrow, form will be irrelevant as the world’s biggest sporting festival explodes into life in Moscow.
Hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia are the two lowest-ranked teams at the tournament by some distance and they are both in dire form. But their clash will set the tone for the global showpiece.
Partly due to a lack of competitive matches, Russia have slipped to 70th in the Fifa rankings, which sounds shockingly low for a World Cup team until you glance up to see the Saudis, despite securing automatic qualification from a competitive Asian confederation, at 67th.
Despite failing to win in seven matches going back to October 2017, the hosts still have high hopes of making it to the second round for the first time in more than 30 years after being drawn in a group also containing Egypt and Uruguay.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov has been working overtime trying to rebuild his team, particularly defensively, after a cruel run of serious injuries to some of his most experienced operators, but the tournament has arrived without him showing much evidence of progress.
His team last tasted success via a 4-2 victory over South Korea - and even that win needed two own goals - and their most recent warm-ups brought defeat by Austria and a 1-1 draw with Turkey.
But if they are going to do it against anyone, it should be against a Saudi team coming off successive friendly losses to Italy, Peru and Germany, though they showed patches of encouraging form and did beat Algeria and Greece in May.
Their World Cup pedigree is dire, too. This is their first appearance since 2006 and in their last three tournaments they lost seven and drew two of their group games.
Russia could not have hoped for a more gentle start, but Cherchesov knows the players and public need to discover some confidence.
“I am not a therapist able to reassure anyone,” he said after the Turkey draw. “We are making progress and our main task is to believe in ourselves.” — Reuters