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Saudis look to crush hopes of Russian hosts as World Cup 2018 kicks-off

media Russia fan with body paint before the opening match against Saudi in Moscow. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Russia take on Saudi Arabia on Thursday in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup with the world watching and a nation expecting

The hosts go into the match at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow following an opening ceremony featuring the pop star Robbie Williams and the Russian opera singer Aida Garifullina.

While she concentrates on her arias, her compatriots on the football field will be seeking rewards in opposition areas to confound the critics.

Stanislav Cherchesov's side are the lowest ranked team at the World Cup and have not won a game since October 2017.

They were whistled off the pitch by fans after drawing their final warm-up against Turkey.

The hosts’ prelude to the fest was hampered by injuries. Striker Alexander Kokorin and defenders Georgy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin will miss the tournament due to knee problems.

The 38-year-old CSKA Moscow defender Sergei Ignashevic was brought out of international retirement to help the cause. His lack of mobility may avoid serious examination against a Saudi Arabia side with an equally lamentable Fifa world ranking.

However against a Mo Salah inspired Egypt, and a Uruguay team boasting the guile of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, routs could follow for the hosts in those matches in St Petersburg and Samara.

"We have to take all the criticism and turn it into something positive," said Cherchesov. "The first game will be the most important one because it will leave its stamp on the entire campaign.

"Every player knows that he represents his country and will give everything he has for the win."

It will be the same attitude in each of the 32 camps for as long as the team survives. Rare is the player to emerge from a World Cup declaring: “I didn’t fancy putting the effort in.”

The song is habitually about the fulfilment of childhood dreams. And some of the Saudi team were kids when the team last played in the World Cup. The Saudis have been absent since 2006 and will be keen to spoil the party in Moscow.

But that attitude may to be of no avail if a certain soothsayer is to be heeded. Achilles, a deaf cat, chose a bowl of food bearing Russian flag rather than one sporting the Saudi colours.

The cat is usually part of a team of dozens of cats that guard Saint Petersburg's Hermitage museum from rodents. But he has taken on a new role for the event.

However Achilles might require sanctuary if the predictions are incorrect. Or he may need to look to his spiritual betters who are playing a blinder. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that hope and prayer were the only exhortations he could offer.

But will that be enough though on a wet cloudy Thursday afternoon in Moscow?

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