Here Is the Russia Lineup
• A lot of people were expecting Russia’s midfield twins, Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk, to be a key part of the team. But they aren’t in the announced starting lineup. Russia has the luxury of a fairly deep midfield, by far its best area. As for the Saudi team strength … it’s not clear there is one.
Here Is the Saudi Arabia Lineup
Russia vs. Saudi Arabia Top Story Lines
• Home teams have tended to do well in the World Cup. But such is Russia’s world ranking (only 70th, behind Albania) and recent form (1-2 in the Confederations Cup, a friendly loss to Austria) that hopes are not high. Russia may not even make it out of a fairly weak group that contains Uruguay and Egypt, much less threaten to win the overall title as six host teams have done.
• On the other hand, Russia is opening up against Saudi Arabia, by acclamation the weakest team in the tournament, offered at odds of 1000-1 or more. A 3-0 friendly drubbing by Peru earlier this month was not propitious.
• Russia’s goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, is 32 and has been playing for Russia since he was 18. But he has always been considered below the best net-minders in Europe. A lifer at CSKA Moscow, he is the kind of player who turns up in the early stages of the Champions League and disappears before the real games start.
• Another CSKA star is Aleksandr Golovin, just 22 and possibly soon to be on his way to a bigger European team. He is a versatile talent, and if Russia is to re-emerge as a world-beater in the years ahead, he is likely to be a big part of it.
• Saudi Arabia lacks big names, to say the least. Of their 23 players, 20 are based in the obscure Saudi league, while three play for the kind of Spanish teams that aren’t often shown on TV. Keep an eye on Mohamed Al-Sahlawi, who has a nose for goal. His 16 scores in qualifying topped the world, although some of them came against weak opposition (eight total in two games against Timor Leste).
• The last time Saudi Arabia qualified, in 2006, it managed a single draw. In 2002, it was 0-3 including an 8-0 loss to Germany.
Some Pregame Reading
• Russia’s car capital now cranks out soccer players: They have always made things in Tolyatti. Despite an economic downturn, they still make cars, just fewer than before: Ladas and Renaults and Nissans, some of them sold at the countless dealerships that line the road to Samara, the regional capital, but most of them shipped north, to Moscow and St. Petersburg, or west to Europe, or east to China. But down the road, in the quiet suburb of Primorsky, there is another factory, another production line. Over the last 15 years, Tolyatti has become a city that makes soccer players.