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Russia vs. Saudi Arabia 2018 World Cup: Hosts in command at halftime

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Denis Cheryshev and Russia are flying high. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

Russia vs. Saudi Arabia 

Group A, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow

Halftime: Russia 2, Saudi Arabia 0

The host country is in full control here as Saudi Arabia has failed to mount much of an attack and seems disorganized in all facets of the game. Neither team seems particularly strong — befitting the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament in terms of FIFA’s rankings — but it’s Russia that has made the most of the other team’s ineptitude.

FiveThirtyEight gives Russia a 97 percent chance of victory, which seems about right. Some fans perhaps are using this as a sign to beat the crowd:

Goal!

Russia goes up 2-0 in the 43rd minute as Denis Cheryshev, who came on as a substitute about 20 minutes earlier, corrals the ball in the box, lets two Saudi defenders slide by him and then plants it into the upper corner of the net. All Russia right now.

VAR yet to be tested

The Video Assistant Referee system (VAR), new for this World Cup to assist the officials, was not employed in the first half, though there was on opportunity in the 35th minute when Fyodor Smolov was taken down by Osama Hawsawi in the box on a breakaway. Argentine referee Nestor Pitana kept his whistle quiet, and it appeared to be a clean call.

VAR officials, located in remote locations and not in the stadiums, may intervene when there is “clear and obvious error” in one of four areas: goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity.

Russia forced to sub already

Midfielder Alan Dzagoev pulled up with what appeared to be a painful hamstring injury in the 23rd minute. He had to depart and was replaced by Denis Cheryshev, one of only two members of Russia’s team to play pro soccer outside the country (Villarreal in Spain). The last thing anyone wants is to burn a sub so early in the first half.

Goal!

After a feeling-out period that saw Russia control much of the play, Iury Gazinsky took a cross from Aleksandr Golovin in the 12th minute and headed it past a helpless Abdullah Al-Maiouf to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.

Andres Cantor is back.

It garnered this reaction:

Russia almost struck again moments later, but Al-Maiouf was able to punch away a deflected shot from Fyodor Smolov (there also was an offsides that wasn’t called).

The starting lineups

Russia: Akinfeev, Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov, Gazinskiy, Zobnin, Samedov, Golovin, Dzagoev, Smolov.

Saudi Arabia: Al-Maiouf, Al-Breik, Omar Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi, Al-Shahrani, Al-Faraj, Otayf, Al-Jassim, Al-Shehri, Al-Dawsari, Al-Sahlawi.

Sergei Ignashevich, a 38-year-old center back, came out of retirement to rejoin the national team just last month (see the above note about all the injuries). He’s the most-capped player in Russian history.

Russia has lost its last five World Cup matches, last beating Tunisia in its 2002 group-stage opener. There’s been only one World Cup host not to advance out of group play: South Africa in 2010.

When: Thursday, June 14, 11 a.m. Eastern.

How to watch on TV: Fox.

How to stream online: Fox Sports and the Fox Soccer Match Pass apps and FOXSports.com.

How to watch in Spanish: Telemundo.

How to watch in Canada: Bell Media’s TSN and CTV networks, the TSN GO app and TSN.ca/live.


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Team profiles

Russia 

  • Last World Cup showing: Group stage, 2014.
  • Best finish: As Soviet Union, fourth place in 1966. As Russia, group stage three times.
  • Notable: Russia hasn’t finished higher than 18th place in its three World Cup appearances since 1994, winning just two of nine matches over that span.
  • FIFA world ranking: 70. ELO world ranking: 45.

Saudi Arabia 

  • Last World Cup showing: Group stage, 2006.
  • Best finish: Round of 16, 1994.
  • Notable: In its three World Cup appearances since making the knockout round in its 1994 World Cup debut, Saudi Arabia has failed to win a game and has finished 28th, 32nd and 28th. The Green Falcons have been outscored, 26-4, over that span.
  • FIFA world ranking: 67. ELO world ranking: 63.

Players to watch 

You never want to put too much pressure on one player, but that’s exactly what Sami Al-Jaber, the now-retired Saudi Arabia great, did for forward Fahad Al-Muwallad. “He is our Messi,” Al-Jaber told Arab News, referring to the Argentine megastar. “Not as good obviously but just as important to us. Our hopes rest with him.” Al-Muwallad is one of the three aforementioned players who spent time in Spain this season, spending nearly all of his time on the bench for Levante. For the Russians, Aleksandr Golovin is a 22-year-old central midfielder whose play for CSKA Moscow reportedly has attracted the attention of Arsenal and Monaco this offseason. Known for his relentless defense and pinpoint passing, Golovin has been with Russia’s senior national team since he was a teenager and scored just 16 minutes into his first match in 2015.

What’s next 

Russia: vs. Egypt in St. Petersburg, June 19.

Saudi Arabia: vs. Uruguay in Rostov-on-Don, June 20.

Read more about the World Cup:

U.S., Mexico and Canada win joint bid for 2026 World Cup, topping Morocco in FIFA vote

2018 World Cup groups: Previews and predictions

In Iceland, World Cup players aren’t gods. They’re neighbors.

Peru could be the surprise team of the World Cup with Paolo Guerrero back

Spain fires its coach two days before World Cup opener

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