The enthusiasm in Russia is not about the national team – more about the hosting of the most glamorous football event. The hosts, managed by Stanislav Cherchesov, are under intense pressure to pour cold water on the fact they are the lowest ranked team, 70, at the World Cup.
When the group draws were made in December, it looked like a good one but Saudi Arabia , Egypt , and Uruguay  may ensure they become the second host country, after South Africa, that will fail to qualify for the second round.
They can change all that narrative with a morale-boosting win over the Saudis at the Luzhinki Stadium on Thursday. After the squad was decimated by injuries and withdrawals, Cherchesov has settled for a revised 4-1-4-1 formation while the Saudis will file out in a 4-2-3-1 formation under their Argentine manager, Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Russia’s win rate going into this tournament is less than 25 per cent while the Saudis showed in their last friendly against Germany they will be dangerous, especially through the skills of Salem Al Dawsari. For Cherchesov, both Fedor Smolov and Aleksandr Golovin must carry the team forward and be brave in creating scoring chances, and take them.
Head to head
Wed 06/10/93 FRI Saudi Arabia 4 – 2 Russia
Current Form [Last 5 matches]
|Russia 1 – 1 Turkey||Germany 2 – 1 Saudi Arabia|
|Austria 1 -0 Russia||Saudi Arabia 0 – 3 Peru|
|Russia 1 – 3 France||Italy 2 – 1 Saudi Arabia|
|Russia 0 – 3 Brazil||Saudi Arabia 2 – 0 Greece|
|Russia 3 – 3 Spain||Saudi Arabia 2 – 0 Algeria|
Three duels to watch
Fedor Smolov v Osama Hawsawi
With 12 goals from 32 caps, 28-year-old Smolov must catch fire from the kickoff to give the Russians a fighting chance in Group A. He will be directly in opposition to the most experienced Saudi, Osama Hawsawi, who has won 135 caps for his country.
Roman Zobnin v Salem Al Dawsari
Nippy Al Dawsari has some European experience – at least training with Villarreal has widened his knowledge and against Germany, he was good in one-on-one situations so Zobnin must be very careful with his tackles as fouls could lead to goal scoring chances from set pieces.
Aleksandr Golovin v Abdullah Otayf
The midfield battle would be a tough one between Golovin and the leggy Otayf, who does not give any quarter. Cherchesov will be hoping the 22-year-old CSKA conductor will get his bow on the right notes.
Referee in charge: 42-year-old Nestor Pitana of Argentina will be in charge. He officiated four matches during Brazil 2014. He will become the third Argentine to referee a World Cup opener, following Nestor Coerezza in 1978 and Horacio Elizondo in 2006.
WORLD CUP FACT: No host country has lost a World Cup opener.
Prediction: Russia 2-1 Saudi Arabia