Mark O'Haire's World Cup Diary: Host nation to avoid early upset

6 min

We’ve completed the sticker albums, we’ve immersed ourselves in every possible preview, the wall chart is up and our pre-tournament bets are on. It’s finally here – 1,430 days after Germany were crowned world champions in Rio, the World Cup returns to our screens.

Admittedly the opening contest between Russia and Saudi Arabia tempers excitement ever so slightly but who are we kidding? Whether it was Brazil taking on Germany or Lichtenstein facing off against Djibouti, we’d all obsessively be tuning in for the big kick-off.

European club football may have made giant commercial strides over the past decade but the World Cup remains the unparalleled peak competition for armchair supporters. There are only seven football-free days from Thursday until the final on 15th July with over 96 hours of action to soak up. Drink it in!

So it’s probably time to have a punting interest in the curtain-raiser, eh? No host nation has ever lost their first fixture, and with Mexico (1970) the last home country to fire a blank in their opener, there’s a degree of emphasis and expectation on Russia to start with maximum points.

There’s no doubt a date with Saudi Arabia is the kindest possible first fixture for Russia but with the eyes of the planet on Moscow, and Vladimir Putin in attendance, could the honour of starting the party prove to be a little problematic for Stanislav Cherchesov’s limited outfit? Quite possibly.

I certainly don’t anticipate a cakewalk in the capital for the Sbornaya, although a victory by hook or by crook seems the most likely scenario. European teams have won alongside a clean sheet in 9/21 (43%) games against Asian or Oceanic sides over the past three World Cups and a repeat is probably on the cards.

Striker Fedor Smolov is one of Russia’s few shining lights with 12 goals in 22 starts.

Saudi Arabia rode their luck in key moments across qualification and looked off the pace when playing away. The Green Falcons failed to beat any of their top-ranked rivals on their travels, while no Asian nation faced more shots or efforts on-target en-route to Russia.

Asian teams have lost 53/88 (60%) World Cup matches outside of their home continent and it would be a surprise if the Saudis were able to spoil the party.

With that in mind, splitting your stakes across the 1-0 (5.00) and 2-0 (5.50) triumphs should give us a good run for our money in Moscow.

Elsewhere, Spain meet Iberian neighbours Portugal in a mouthwatering match from Group B on Friday evening.

Tipped by many judges to challenge for top honours, La Roja will hope to improve upon a record of only two wins from their past 12 World Cup openers.

Julen Lopetegui’s star-studded squad pack plenty of punch and arrive keen to avenge their performance as defending champions four years ago.

They’ve regrouped since and have made serene progress under their former under-21 boss with a series of eye-catching and dominant displays; enough to make them 1.98 on beating rivals Portugal in sweaty Sochi.

The Selecao were unconvincing Euro 2016 winners, have a backline that lacks pace and youth, while the Sporting Lisbon contingent are sure to have lost a little focus following the recent turmoil surrounding their club back and futures back home. It’s far from ideal preparation and the Portuguese should be opposed.

Recommended Bets

  • Russia v Saudi Arabia – Russia to win 1-0 (5.00)
  • Russia v Saudi Arabia – Russia to win 2-0 (5.50)
  • Portugal v Spain – Spain to win (1.98)

Update: It’s hard see how events unfolding around the Spanish side on Wednesday morning can have a positive effect on their performance.

The players are professionals but the unsettling environment created by the lunacy above could easily disrupt preparation and so punters are urged to approach Friday night’s match with caution.

La Roja have drifted to odds-against territory – absolute value, it must be said – but we enter the market with a major caveat surrounding the situation. Tread carefully.

Click here for Matchbook’s latest World Cup markets

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