Don't miss our recommended bets for the opening day of the World Cup as hosts Russia take on underdogs Saudi Arabia - George Pitts previews the action.
Recommended World Cup bets: Thursday
For details of advised bookmakers and each-way terms, visit our transparent tipping record
- Russia 1-0 Saudi Arabia
Russia v Saudi Arabia (ITV, 1600 BST)
With Uruguay by far and away the favourites to win the group, Russia have seemingly been gift-wrapped a fantastic chance of at least qualifying for the knockout stages.
They face Uruguay last, so their first two winnable fixtures against the Saudis and Egypt could see them gather momentum and, more crucially, points on the board.
They may not be the best Russia team we have seen in recent years – at least not up to the standard of their Euro 2008 semi-finalists – but with home advantage they are odds-on favourites to beat a team three places above them in the FIFA world rankings.
Russia have failed to win their last seven friendly fixtures but their previous form was relatively sound and with all the buzz following the opening ceremony in Moscow, Thursday would be a good time to put an end to that more recent disappointing run.
The visitors, meanwhile, pipped Australia to an automatic spot in qualifying after six wins, a draw and three defeats.
It is the Green Falcons' fifth World Cup and they will be hoping to prove the doubters wrong with many expecting them to finish bottom of the section. Genuine quality in the squad is admittedly quite sparse, but keep a lookout for stocky wide-man Yahya Al-Shehri, who has a proper left foot and might just be the one to create some promising situations from set-pieces.
In previous World Cup tournaments, South Africa are the only host nation to have failed to qualify for the knockout stages and FC Krasnodar's Fedor Smolov, a reported target for West Ham, looks the most likely man to inspire a home win.
He has 12 goals in 32 appearances for his country and looks to possess all credentials to play the role of hero on the opening night. A Smolov score-and-win double at 21/20 is tempting, as is 3/1 for the forward to provide the tournament's first goal - he's evens anytime, so clearly hasn't been missed.
Saudi Arabia are now under the management of former Chile boss Juan Antonio Pizzi and will definitely be well set up at the back, all but guaranteeing a tight clash.
While it might not be a classic, Russia are fancied to nick a goal and just edge it. A home win with under 2.5 goals looks a cautious but wise move as we feel our way into proceedings.
Prediction: Russia 1-0 Saudi Arabia (Sky Bet odds: 4/1)
Best Bet: Russia to win and under 2.5 goals at 7/4
- Russia and Saudi Arabia’s only previous encounter was in October 1993; the Saudis won 4-2 at home in a friendly.
- 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.
- 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 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- Saudi Arabia have also never won their opening game at the World Cup (D1 L3).
- 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 manager Stanislav Cherchesov made one appearance as a player at the World Cup; it was in Russia’s 6-1 win against Cameroon on 28 June 1994, a game in which Oleg Salenko scored five goals, still a World Cup record for most goals in a game.
- This is Juan Antonio Pizzi’s first World Cup as manager – the Saudi Arabia boss featured in one game with Spain as a player in the 1998 tournament. His only previous experience as 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.
Posted at 1730 BST 13/06/18.
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