Simon Mail previews the opening game of the World Cup and expects hosts Russia to get off the mark with a win over Saudi Arabia...
"Russia should come through this opener but there is no guarantee it will be a high-scoring victory. In their last seven games, the World Cup hosts have only scored more than one goal in one match."
Russia v Saudi Arabia
Live on ITV
Favourable opener for hosts
The wait is finally over as hosts Russia get the World Cup underway with a game against Saudi Arabia. It might not be a classic for the neutral but there is no doubting the importance for the Russians with their easiest match of the group stage coming in their opener. Failure to beat Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow would be a major blow to their chances of progressing.
Russia's preparations for the tournament have been far from ideal and there has been no sign of inspiration from Stanislav Cherchesov's side. Of course, friendlies often do not offer an exceptionally accurate gauge of a team but their recent 1-0 defeat to Austria did not bode well after failing to muster a shot on target. The failure to qualify from their Confederations Cup group on home soil last summer was another concern and they are the lowest ranked side in the tournament.
Difficult to see Saudi Arabia progressing
Saudi Arabia are one of the rank outsiders for the competition and their history in the World Cup suggests it could be a short stay. The team have finished bottom of their group in their last three appearances in the tournament with the last coming in 2006 so their track record fails to inspire much confidence.
With a squad comprised entirely of domestic-based players, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi faces a huge challenge to qualify for the second round. Their final warm-up game saw them lose 2-1 to world champions Germany which was their third successive defeat. It is highly likely Saudi Arabia will go into the tournament with a defensive gameplan designed to frustrate opponents but their attacking limitations are expected to hold them back.
Favourites Russia short enough for victory
This is a generous opener for Russia and the hosts should get off the mark but their current form of seven games without a win is certainly enough to swerve siding with them at short odds of [1.47]. Cherchesov's side cannot afford to slip up in this match with tougher tests ahead in the group. Russia should oblige for favourite backers but it is a hazardous wager considering their unconvincing form.
Saudi Arabia are available at [10.0] but there is no real temptation to take a punt on them even at those odds. The team have never won their opening game at the World Cup, in four appearances, with any tournament victories proving very hard to come by for Saudi Arabia. Pizzi would probably be happy to contain their opponents and there is unlikely to be any great ambition for the win.
This brings the draw into play and certainly merits consideration at [4.4]. With a limited gameplan expected, Saudi Arabia will be content with a stalemate and Russia could be frustrated by them. A low-scoring draw would not be a huge surprise although a narrow win for the hosts looks more likely.
Russia should come through this opener but there is no guarantee it will be a high-scoring victory. In their last seven games, the World Cup hosts have only scored more than one goal in one match. Saudi Arabia have also only managed to score in two of their last nine matches in the tournament. Using the new Same Game Multi feature in the Sportsbook, you can back Russia to win with under 2.5 goals at odds of [2.66] which could be worth taking.
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The Racing Post's chief football tipster Mark Langdon provided his best World Cup bets at Betfair's recent Preview Night...
Key Opta Stats for Russia v Saudi Arabia
Russia and Saudi Arabia’s only previous encounter was in October 1993; the Saudis won 4-2 at home in a friendly. Saudi Arabia are [10.0] to kick off the World Cup with a shock.
Since the split up of the USSR, Russia have never reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in three appearances (1994, 2002, 2014). They have finished third in their group in each of those three editions. You can lay Russia to qualify for the knockout stages at [1.5].
France were the last World Cup hosts to win the trophy in 1998. The hosts have always reached the second round of the competition, the only exception coming in 2010 when South Africa were knocked out in the group stages. Russia are [1.49] to make the last-16.
Russia are winless in their last five games at the World Cup (D2 L3). In fact, Russia’s only two wins at the World Cup since independence were against African teams (6-1 v Cameroon in 1994, 2-0 v Tunisia in 2002). The draw is [4.4].
This is Saudi Arabia’s fifth World Cup, their first since 2006. They have finished bottom of their group in their last three appearances, their best performance dating back to their opening tournament in 1994 (knocked out by Sweden in the round of 16). The Saudis are [1.46] to finish rock bottom of Group A.
Saudi Arabia have won none of their last 10 games at the World Cup, losing eight of them (D2). In fact, their last win in the competition dates back to the group stages of the 1994 edition (1-0 v Belgium, 29th June 1994). Russia are [1.47] to claim victory.
Saudi Arabia have also never won their opening game at the World Cup (D1 L3). The draw half-time/Russia full-time double result is [4.2].
Saudi Arabia have kept only one clean sheet in their 13 games at the World Cup – it was in their 1-0 win against Belgium in June 1994. They have also failed to score in seven of their last nine games in the tournament. Russia are [2.0] to win to nil.
This is Juan Antonio Pizzi’s first World Cup. His only previous experience as a national team manager was with Chile whom he led to finals in his two tournaments: winners in the 2016 Copa America and beaten finalists in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Saudi Arabia are [10.0] to qualify from Group A.