The wait is almost over. Soccer’s 2018 World Cup gets underway on Thursday as hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
The other two nations in Group A, Uruguay and Egypt, are ranked 14th and 45th respectively in the official FIFA standings and are expected to progress to the knockout stage.
So, the competition’s opening clash is critical to both Russia and Saudi Arabia’s hopes of continuing beyond the group stage. Our friends Football Whispers look at five ways to bet on the contest.
First up is picking Fedor Smolov as the opening goalscorer. The 28-year-old striker has 12 goals in 32 games for his country and enjoyed a stellar domestic campaign with Krasnodar in the Russian Premier League, finding the net 14 times in 24 games. His 0.65 goals per 90 minutes ratio was the second highest in the league.
Smolov also scored Russia’s first and only goal in recent games against France, Spain and South Korea. With the creativity of Alexsei Miranchuk and Manchester United transfer target Aleksandr Golovin behind him, the Russian captain will be his side’s biggest threat and is +300 to be first goalscorer against the Saudis with bet365.
Surprisingly only three places separate Russia and Saudi Arabia in the FIFA rankings, at 70th and 67th respectively. However, the rankings can be deceptive and home advantage is going to count for a lot.
Saudi Arabia have only kept one clean sheet in their last seven games and conceded four against Iran and Belgium. Off the field they have been in turmoil, with Juan Antonio Pizzi their third manager since qualifying for the tournament.
Russia’s attack is packed with quick, technically proficient players which should prove enough to open their opponents’ defence.
We’d recommend backing Russia to go into the half-time interval with a 1-0 lead at +800 with bet365.
As hosts Russia did not have to go through qualifying which makes judging their recent form a little tricky. However, Saudi Arabia have fired two coaches since qualifying, have a squad with an average age of 28.6 and are largely untested at the highest level.
But head coach Stanislav Cherchesov has star quality at his disposal and Smolov had a productive season at club level, averaging 4.47 scoring attempts per 90 minutes in the league.
The Saudis conceded an average of 5.88 shots per 90 in qualifying and many of their games came against lesser opponents, like Iraq and Thailand, who lack Russia’s firepower. With Smolov up front we’re backing Russia to have five or more shots on target during the contest.
The host nation have never lost their opening game of a World Cup tournament and we’re tipping Russia to clinch three points in Moscow.
Saudi Arabia have won two games in four previous World Cup appearances and the odds are understandably stacked against Pizzi’s men. Backing Over 2.5 goals is +115 with bet365 seems to be the way to go.
Russia have a habit of scoring late goals under Cherchesov, with four on 68 minutes or later in their last seven games.
In contrast Saudi Arabia have conceded four on 68 minutes or later in their last seven, so it’s possible Russia will score in both halves, which is -120 with bet365.