Weblog: The football punter
World Cup hosts Russia can make perfect start
World Cup Group A
ITV, 4pm Thursday
World Cup hosts Russia have done little to suggest they can be a major force this summer but they can start off with a victory and a clean sheet against Group A outsiders Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
World Cup host nations have regularly risen to the occasion with 20 of 21 making it past the first round.
South Africa were the exception in 2010 and even they were competitive, winning one, drawing one and losing one of their three group matches.
A first-round exit was widely expected of the South Africans, who were Fifa's second-lowest ranked team at the 2010 tournament.
Russia are expected to do much better – they are 2-5 to reach the last 16 – yet they go into the tournament as the lowest-ranked team, way down at 70th on the latest Fifa list.
The Russians' low ranking has been influenced by a run of tough friendlies against strong opposition.
Between November 2017 and March 2018 they played against four of the top five teams in the World Cup outright betting, losing to Argentina (1-0), Brazil (3-0) and France (3-1) and drawing with Spain (3-3).
There was no disgrace in those efforts but Russian confidence may have been dented.
Russia go into the tournament on a seven-game winless run but all would be forgiven if they could start with a victory.
In an effort to come up with a winning formula Russia head coach Stanislav Cherchesov has been mixing up his selections and formations, alternating between a back four and a back three.
Veteran 38-year-old CSKA Moscow centre-back Sergei Ignashevich has come back into the fold and will be tasked with providing leadership and experience at the heart of a defence who have struggled in recent times.
Russia haven't kept a clean sheet since winning 2-0 against New Zealand in their opening game at the 2017 Confederations Cup but there was a more solid look about them in their final World Cup warm-up game as they drew 1-1 against Turkey in Moscow, giving up just six shots to their opponents.
Saudi Arabia are likely to pose even less of a threat than the Turks.
They wrapped up their preparations with a flattering 2-1 loss at Germany in Leverkusen but their limitations had been exposed five days earlier when they were thumped 3-0 by Peru in Switzerland.
Against Germany they played some nice football at times but they look shaky at the back, despite the efforts of experienced manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, and lacked quality and composure in front of goal.
Germany lost concentration towards the end with Sami Khedira felling Taisir Al-Jassam in the penalty area and although Marc-Andre Ter Stegen saved Mohammad Al-Sahlawi's spot-kick, Al-Jassam was on hand to dispatch the rebound.
The key for Russia is to stay focused for the whole 90 minutes.
They possess nowhere near as much attacking flair as the Germans but should have enough to prise open the Saudis, who have shipped two goals or more in each of their last three games.
Russia's quest for goals will be heavily dependent on mercurial attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev, whose career has been held back by a spate of injuries.
At his best, as he showed when scoring three goals at Euro 2012, Dzagoev has the talent to light up a major tournament.
He missed Euro 2016 and the 2017 Confederations Cup through injury and has been in and out of the team at CSKA Moscow this season.
However, Dzagoev started the draw with Turkey last week, laying on the opening goal for right wingback Aleksandr Samedov, and could be the man to break Saudi resistance.
Centre-forward Fedor Smolov is the most likely beneficiary of Dzagoev's vision and will hope to build on a positive season for Krasnodar where he scored 14 goals in 22 league appearances.
Dzagoev apart, Russia look sorely lacking individual quality. But host nations have often come up with a little bit extra in World Cups gone by and Russia won't have to be anything special to make a winning start.
Russia win to nil