Some are calling it El Gasico.
Russia and Saudi Arabia meet in the first match of the 2018 World Cup on Thursday, kicking off a month of high-level international football. Odds forecast a win for Russia, but the lack of quality on both teams presents a certain air of unpredictability for a match that is historically always won by the hosts.
Russia & Saudi Arabia Squads
Russia might start a 38-year old at center back. They had a pair of defenders retire, and had another pair go down with knee injuries before the tournament. Their best offensive player, Aleksandr Kokorin, is also out with a knee injury. They will instead rely on Fyodor Smolov to provide the spark up top, and rely on a handful of high-motor midfielders to keep themselves alive.
Injuries aside, Russia just hasn’t been very good in international play. They haven’t won a match since October, a 4-2 win over South Korea that was aided by a pair of own goals.
The only sure thing in the lineup will be Igor Akinfeev. The captain, who has spent his entire club career at CSKA Moscow, will be in charge of organizing an inexperienced back line on the fly.
Russia has been playing with three center backs since Stanislav Cherchesov, but it’s unknown who will start in the opener. ESPN predicts a 5-3-2 for Russia, with Smolov alone up top.
For Saudi Arabia, it’s a matter of chemistry and match fitness. Manager Juan Antonio Pizzi was only hired in November, after failing to reach the World Cup with Chile. 20 of 23 players are from the Saudi Premier League, and most are from the top two teams in the league. That means a ton of untested talent, with most of the roster seeing their first-ever World Cup.
And then there’s the transfers. In an effort to get their players some high-level experience, Saudi officials struck a deal with La Liga to send a handful of players to Spain on loan. The plan backfired, as the players stayed on the bench and are now lacking proper fitness heading into the World Cup.
Saudi Arabia will try to use their offensive playmakers to frustrate the inexperienced Russian defenders. Yahya Al Shehri is the playmaker, and he’ll look to feed balls into Mohamed al-Sahlawi, who led all players globally with 17 goals in qualifying. With that in mind, expect to see something like a 4-2-3-1 from Saudi Arabia.
Russia & Saudi Arabia Lineups
Starting lineups posted one hour before kickoff