The World Cup is set to start and finish with games at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
The lowest-ranked teams at the tournament meet in the opener today as Russia host Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, also the venue for the 15 July final.
The Russians, 70th in the Fifa world rankings, got an automatic spot as tournament hosts. The Saudis, at No 67, have the lowest ranking of the 31 countries which have secured places via qualifying. They’re the longest of long shots to reach the final.
The home team will likely need to win to have a realistic hope of advancing from Group A, and are expected to have Russian President Vladimir Putin in the crowd for support as they bid to end a seven-game winless streak. Only one World Cup host nation has failed to get past the group stage – South Africa in 2010.
The other two teams in the group, Egypt and Uruguay, boast star forwards in Mohamed Salah and Luis Suarez who could cause major problems for the Russia and Saudi defences in the subsequent games.
Juan Antonio Pizzi, Saudi Arabia’s Argentinian coach, and his Russian counterpart Stanislav Cherchesov bring very different personalities and tactics to the tournament.
Pizzi won the 2016 Copa America title with Chile using an all-action style with constant pressure on the opposition. He’ll struggle to replicate that with a Saudi team he took over after they had qualified.
Cherchesov favours a more defensive approach. Known for his prickly demeanour in interviews, he responded to questions about what he’d say to Russian fans who are nervous about their team’s poor form by saying he’s “no psychologist, to go around calming people down”.
Injuries disrupted Russia’s World Cup preparations, with forward Alexander Kokorin and defenders Georgy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin sustaining severe knee injuries earlier this year.
That forced Cherchesov into some late shake-ups. Expect Fyodor Smolov to start up front and more tinkering with the defence.
Cherchesov abandoned his usual three-man backline with wing-backs in favour of a four-man defence against Austria last month, but Russia lost 1-0 and failed to register a shot on target.
Cherchesov insists he is comfortable with the level of scrutiny being directed at the hosts as they look for their first win at the summer finals since their opening match of the 2002 event, against Tunisia.
“Everybody should listen to critics, that’s natural,” he said at his pre-match press conference. “We are under scrutiny and should react to it in a natural way. I feel comfortable about it.
“Praise is also a kind of criticism, right? We want public opinion about us to be better after the first match and will try to change it with our performance.
“Why will we win [today]? Because we really want it.”
The hosts are expected to win their first international meeting with the Middle Eastern country and it is pressure which Spartak Moscow midfielder Aleksandr Samedov insists they can handle.
“I already know what a World Cup is all about and how intense it is,” said the 33-year-old, who did not make his international debut until he was 27 but played in all three of Russia’s matches at Brazil 2014.
“I remember the previous World Cup, how nervous I was. That wasn’t good, you need to be calm and psychologically stable. Now I feel much much better.
“I’m staying calm in my preparations because psychology is an important factor too, although the pressure is there. It’s our home World Cup and we’re kick-starting the tournament. The whole world will be watching us.”
Saudi Arabia’s long wait for a third World Cup win stretches back to 1994, when they beat Belgium, although they have not qualified since 2006. They come into the tournament having lost friendlies to Italy, Peru and holders Germany.
Captain Osama Hawsawi believes playing top-class opposition has helped their preparations, despite the results.
“We are happy to be a part of the opening of the most important event in the world,” he said. “In friendly matches we have shown a high level, with the match against Germany [a 2-1 defeat last Friday] evidence to that, and the Saudi team is a strong competitor in Asia. Our ambition is to qualify for the later rounds.”