Russia v Saudi Arabia, Thursday 14th June, 16:00 BST
Let the games begin. Opening up proceedings of the 2018 World Cup are the hosts, Russia and footballing powerhouse, Saudi Arabia. For those who can remember the incredibly talented USSR team of the 1980’s, it’s something of a shock to register just how poor this current model is. Russia are currently ranked 70th in the world by FIFA – their lowest ever ranking. Lacking any meaningful competition by way of qualification as a result of their assured presence as hosts, Russia come into this tournament somewhat undercooked. They have played four friendlies this year, losing three, drawing one and scoring just twice. Granted, two of those teams are pre-tournament favourites (Brazil and France) but they have precious little form to boast of.
All of which makes them very fortunate to have drawn Saudi Arabia as their first opponents. They are the kind of team that casual football fans dread pulling from the hat in the office draw. That same sense of disappointment could as easily apply to Russia, in fairness. In their favour, Saudi Arabia are ranked ahead of Russia, albeit by just three places at 67. They do, however, come into this game and tournament in better form than their hosts. Eight friendlies this year have seen them win three, draw one and lose four, scoring in six matches and keeping clean sheets in three. Far from outstanding but at least they have some serious game time under their belts.
It seems somewhat odd, then, that Russia are heavy favourites to win this game. They are the hosts and traditionally this has worked in the favour of previous awardees. The market appears to believe that this is enough to price them at so short a price (around 3/7), even though the respective form of both teams does nothing to suggest that this is reasonable. Even though this column would not be surprised if Saudi Arabia shocked the hosts with a win, at a price of 17/5, the draw looks awfully tempting.
Uruguay Can Take the Group A Initiative against Egypt
Egypt v Uruguay, Friday 15th June, 13:00 BST
Although they are Africa’s most successful team having won the Africa Cup of Nations seven times, Egypt have only graced the World Cup on two occasions with the last time occasion being 1990. Current African Player of the Year, Mohamed Salah, is the jewel in their crown but his fitness is a concern following his injury in the Champions League final with Liverpool. Safe to say that Sergio Ramos won’t be planning a trip to the Pyramids any time soon. The noises coming from the Egypt camp have been positive in terms of his recovery but he is by no means certain to start this game.
His absence would not only be a shame but also a considerable dent to any realistic hope Egypt harboured in relation to a successful outcome in this game. Uruguay can boast of not one but two of the most prolific strikers in Europe over the last number of seasons. The names of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will adorn many’s the betting slip beneath the heading of Golden Boot. Backed by a talented midfield and gnarled, experienced defence, Uruguay are rightly expected to be one of the strongest sides in the competition.
Opening night nerves aside, there is no reason to think that Uruguay will have much trouble finding their stride and accounting for this Egypt side. The bookmakers think likewise and are accordingly pricing Uruguay as strong favourites. There seems little point in putting your money on anything other than the Uruguay win, the best price for which is presently 7/12.