Moscow - Hosts Russia will face Saudi Arabia challenge in the FIFA World Cup 2018 opener, which will be played today (Thursday) at 8:00pm after a colourful opening ceremony of the mega football event.

The excitement level is already touching sky high as the local and international fans, who have reached the city, are waiting for the much-awaited opening ceremony and will provide the fans with pure emotions, joy, heartbreaks, thrilling games and remarkable goals.

The World Cup opener is going to take place between the two lowest-ranked teams as the Russia, ranked 70, directly qualified for the event for being the hosts while their opening opponents Saudi Arabia were at 67 in the latest FIFA rankings.

Out of last six games they have played, the hosts managed to draw just two games while lost rest of their matches and their last victory came in October 2017 against South Korea and since then Russia has been winless. They had a torrid run in both 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and 2016 European Championship, getting knocked out in the group stages in both the tournament.

Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov has the worst win percentage (26.3%) when compared to the previous coaches of the Russian team. The home side will heavily bank on the experience of their star goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. However, the home support would be massive for the Russian team to bring back some confidence and luck in their disappointing, winless 2018. Russia have never progressed from the group stages in the World Cup since the breaking up of the USSR and will be eager to show not only their home crowd but the entire world of their capabilities.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia are also not in good form. Their coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has taken the command of the squad only 7 months ago and since then he has been experimenting with the playing XI and has kept their main striker Al Sahlawi on the bench for most of the friendlies. However, the experienced striker is expected to start the opener.

Saudi Arabia's run-up to the finals was an extremely difficult attempt, having qualified for second place above Australia on only goal difference. They were the only nation, along with England, whose players all play for their respective domestic league – until May, when Al-Muwallad featured for Levante in May at the end of the La Liga season.

The Saudi Arabia team promise to be a good match for the hosts as they have enjoyed a slightly better form than their opponents. The Green Falcons have four losses and two wins in their previous six matches and showed great determination in a narrow 2-1 defeat in a friendly against the defending champions Germany.

The hosts have been hampered by injuries, with forward Alexander Kokorin and defenders Georgy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin missing the tournament due to knee problems. "We're realists," said striker Artyom Dzyuba. "We're not favourites to win the World Cup, but we want to get out of the group and we're playing at home. We want to prove to everyone, and most of all to ourselves, that we can play football, so that the country can be proud of us.

"We're a football country, not just an ice hockey or basketball or volleyball country, but a football one too. And we'll put every effort into getting out of the group, to start with, and we'll only start fantasising after that,” he added.

"We still have time to study Russia's game," Saudi midfielder Yahya Al-Shehri said and added: "First of all, we must focus on our own game. I hope, we will be able to beat Russia. I think the game against Russia will be very difficult… Russia are a good team with great players. They are united and strong, especially in defence."

In the past, Russia and Saudi Arabia have locked horns only once way back in 1993 in a friendly game, where Russia defeated Saudi Arabia by a 4-2 scoreline. Saudi Arabia have had enjoyed a better form in the run-up to the tournament, but Russia may have the edge due to the home conditions and the backing of the jam-packed stadium at Lukzniki. Being hosts and having full support of crowd along with home advantage, Russians are the favourites to win the opener.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Match starts at 8:00 pm

RUSSIA
FEDOR SMOLOV

Russia's scoring problems are obvious, with just two goals netted in this year's four friendlies and no more than one in any of their last six matches at major tournaments. Krasnodar striker Smolov could be the man to ease those concerns. The 28-year-old boasts 52 goals from his last three seasons in Russia's top flight and has reportedly attracted Premier League interest.

Russia

Akinfeev (gk), Zhirkov, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Fernandes; Golovin, Anton Miranchuk, Zobnin, Samedov; Dzagoev, Smolov.

Soudi Arabia
OSAMA HAWSAWI

In a squad without World Cup experience, Osama Hawsawi's 135 caps of international know-how could prove crucial in allowing Saudi Arabia to make a fist of its matches.
The 34-year-old Al-Hilal defender is a leader at the back and will be counted on to help keep out more fancied forwards.

Al-Muaiouf (gk), Al-Burayk, Al-Boleahi, Hawsawi, Al-Harbi, Al-Faraj, Ali-Khaibari, Kanno, Al-Jassim, Al-Shehri, Al-Sahlawi.

soudi arabia