XtraTime Web Desk: The hosts Russia under pressure before the opening match against Saudi Arabia as they are one of the lowest- ranked teams at the World Cup and the squad has been depleted by injuries. Here we will talk about the tactical analysis.
Russia have a clear gameplan and have benefited from a switch to a back three, which most players use at club level. There are also a number of good box-to-box players in the squad.
Russia will sorely miss the injured striker Aleksandr Kokorin while the wing-backs are arguably too old and the centre-backs too young and inexperienced.
Igor Akinfeev: Fourteen years have passed since Russia’s No1 and captain, arguably the best-known player in the squad, made his international debut. It has been quite a ride and he will hope this summer banishes bad memories of the 2014 World Cup, when he embarrassingly fumbled Lee Keun-ho’s harmless shot into his own net against South Korea. His reputation outside Russia tends to centre on an unwanted record of 43 Champions League games without a clean sheet, which only ended last November when CSKA Moscow beat Benfica 2-0. All of this ignores his enduring quality, though. Akinfeev is stable, confident and frequently saves whole games for CSKA Moscow. If his European record is questionable, he has kept more clean sheets in Russian football than any other goalkeeper. Akinfeev also has a peculiar taste in music – he recorded a couple of songs with the Russian pop group Ruki Vverkh! (“Hands up!”).
Most experienced player:
Yuri Zhirkov: One of the squad’s most familiar names and its oldest, too, Zhirkov turns 35 in August but remains in good shape. Time has changed the former Chelsea man’s position: previously the veteran of the Euro 2008 side operated primarily in midfield but now he tends to feature at left-back for Zenit and Russia. He still has a good turn of pace and, of course, the experience gleaned from a long career whose achievements include a Premier League and FA Cup double in 2009-10, as well as a Uefa Cup with CSKA Moscow. Whenever Russia are knocked out, he will have more time to indulge in what, for a footballer, is a decidedly unusual hobby. Zhirkov enjoys collecting Second World War memorabilia and even has a Soviet limousine in his collection. In 2015 he announced plans to open a museum in an old German bunker in Kaliningrad, although it is yet to materialise. “There’s not enough room for everything I have accumulated in the bunker, anyway,” he admitted.
Anton Miranchuk: Anton is 10 minutes younger than his brother but, during their childhood, was considered the more promising prospect of the pair. In the end, though, he had to take the long way to the top – only reaching Aleksei’s level this season after spending the previous couple of years in Lokomotiv’s second team and on loan with Estonian club Levadia. He tends to play in the middle but, like Aleksei, has been deployed further forward too. The primary distinctive feature between the twins, who were born in the Krasnodar region, is their weight: Anton considerably heavier than Aleksei. Recently he spoke of the importance his tight-knit family has had on his career. “I always listen to the opinions of my relatives, because I know they are sincere and true,” he said. “Somewhere their words give me strength and confidence.”
Aleksandr Golovin: This Siberian diamond, born in the small town of Kaltan, was the squad’s youngest player at Euro 2016 and is perhaps their most exciting talent two years later. He is one of the three players whose place in the starting XI at the World Cup appears indisputable and his stock has risen rapidly. Back in 2015, Golovin was playing for CSKA’s reserves and representing Russia in age-group football at the Uefa Under-19 Championship, in which an impressive side finished runners-up. Now he occupies a significant role in both club and national teams, setting the tone for the latter in June 2015 when he scored on his senior Russia debut against Belarus just minutes after entering the pitch as a substitute. Golovin is a flexible player with a broad range of abilities: he is relentless, assertive and has a high level of passing ability. He has been on Arsenal’s radar since last year and a strong performance at the World Cup would probably trigger a transfer – whether to the Gunners or another leading European club.
Main Goal scorer:
Fedor Smolov: This Siberian diamond, born in the small town of Kaltan, was the squad’s youngest player at Euro 2016 and is perhaps their most exciting talent two years later. He is one of the three players whose place in the starting XI at the World Cup appears indisputable and his stock has risen rapidly. Back in 2015, Golovin was playing for CSKA’s reserves and representing Russia in age-group football at the Uefa Under-19 Championship, in which an impressive side finished runners-up. Now he occupies a significant role in both club and national teams, setting the tone for the latter in June 2015 when he scored on his senior Russia debut against Belarus just minutes after entering the pitch as a substitute. Golovin is a flexible player with a broad range of abilities: he is relentless, assertive and has a high level of passing ability. He has been on Arsenal’s radar since last year and a strong performance at the World Cup would probably trigger a transfer – whether to the Gunners or another leading European club.
Saudi Arabia has been much better in possession since Juan Antonio Pizzi took over from Bert van Marwijk and is less of a counterattacking team now. Read a tactical analysis here.
The three attacking midfielders in Pizzi’s 4-2-3-1 – Salem al-Dawsari, Yahya al-Shehri and Fahad al-Muwallad – are talented players who will expect to test any defence in Russia.
The defence is experienced but susceptible to pace and rarely plays against the kind of top-calibre attackers you find at the World Cup.
Abdullah al-Mayouf: Depending on the fitness and form of Yasser al-Mosailem and Mohammed al-Owais, he may not see much action. But making the final 23 is still an achievement, and he worked hard to secure it. He appeared in pre-tournament friendlies, and will be a solid option for Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Most experienced player:
Osama Hawsawi: A mainstay of the backline since coming into the team just after Saudi Arabia’s last appearance at the World Cup in 2006. Fans will be hoping the veteran’s legs last for a few more weeks. Hawsawi, who had a short but unsuccessful spell with Anderlecht in 2012 in a rare foray overseas for a Saudi Arabian player, is fierce in the tackle and reads the game well. Time is starting to tell, though. This summer is expected to be his last in the green shirt and, having already announced his departure from al-Hilal, his future as a player anywhere seems up in the air. “I will not forget you,” he told the club’s supporters in April. His highlights on the international stage include a goal in a friendly against Spain in 2010 – but marshalling this side to the knockouts would surpass anything he’s achieved before.
Abdullah al-Khaibari: The talented 21-year-old midfielder was a surprise pick for the final 23, given the number of experienced options in his position – but Juan Antonio Pizzi gradually eased him in to the setup before the tournament and liked what he saw of him at club level with al-Shabab. Khaibari, who was among the contenders to be named best young player at the Saudi Pro League awards, could provide a welcome burst of energy from the bench.
Mohammad al-Sahlawi: It may seem strange that the big pre-tournament worry was a lack of a reliable scorer when this seasoned 31-year-old has hit 28 goals in 37 games. Sahlawi’s first came against Spain in 2010 and the most recent against Australia in qualification – but five-goal hauls against the likes of Timor Leste have swelled the tally. This summer may provide the truest reflection of his capabilities at the highest level. It remains to seen whether a three-week stint at Manchester United in April – designed to keep him sharp for the World Cup and strengthen commercial ties rather than with any realistic view to a move – bears fruit in Russia.