Russia rule as World Cup starts – but who else will rise to the occasion?

Former South African footballer Matthew Booth keeps track of the opening salvos in this year’s global soccer extravaganza

Volunteer Ekaterina Semenova poses with painted fingernails at the media centre of Kaliningrad Stadium in Russia during the 2018 World Cup.
Volunteer Ekaterina Semenova poses with painted fingernails at the media centre of Kaliningrad Stadium in Russia during the 2018 World Cup.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

и снова здравствуйте (Or hello again, in the West)

I wrote this piece while waiting expectantly for the opening ceremony of the 2018 Fifa World Cup and, more importantly, to see what the hosts would offer us when they played against the virtually unknown Saudis. Apart from Robbie Williams giving us the middle finger, they didn’t disappoint.

In the lead-up to the global showpiece, the much-derided Russian squad had two things going for them: a partisan crowd and the urge to prove their critics wrong. (Rewind to the 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup when Bafana Bafana found themselves in a similar situation.)

The Sbornaya (the Russian national team) had leaked goals of late, especially against classy opponents such as Argentina, France, Brazil and Spain – 10 in all. Their 3-5-2 formation did not bode well for manager Stanislav Cherchesov. And losing his two best defenders, Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya, to long-term injuries filled the camp with more trepidation and led to a change to four at the back over the past month. After all, you cannot expect 34-year-old ex-Chelsea player Yuri Zhirkov to play as an effective left wing-back.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matthew Booth is a former South African football defender
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matthew Booth is a former South African football defender
Image: Supplied

Alan Dzagoev, the Southerner, who caught my eye in my last season playing in Russia in 2008, was their creative think-tank until the 23rd minute when he pulled his hamstring. The extent of the injury will determine whether the midfielder will continue to play in the tournament.

Aleksandr Golovin and Fyodor Smolov, who picked up the Golden Boot in the Russian Premier League on the past two occasions, caused endless trouble by picking the pockets of the Saudis and catching them on the break to great effect. The replacement for Alan Dzagoev, though, had an enormous impact on the game when Spanish-raised Villarreal midfielder Denis Cheryshev used his cultured left foot to score two sublime goals.

Having seen the Russians decimate the Saudis, I still have my doubts about whether their defence will hold up to tougher scrutiny, and the Egyptian and Uruguayan attack will certainly offer that, despite their goal difference. I don’t see the Russians progressing, as much as I would love to see the hosts among the last 32.

For my chance to win millions through Betway’s spread on the World Cup 2018 pool – I am a retired footballer after all – I have chanced my arm with the following:

  • Group A: Uruguay as the winners and the second spot nicked by Salah & Co – upset number one.
  • Group B: Spain and Morocco … yes. Portugal will not progress, as Africa will stake its claim. Bear in mind that the Moroccans did not concede a goal during a tough qualifying group – that’s upset number two.
  • Group C: France and Peru – the latter having taken fifth spot in the qualifying process after playing to a draw against Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia when it counted (at times lacking their talisman, Paolo Guerrero, whose successful appeal against a drugs ban later allowed him back onto the global stage) – that’s upset number three.
  • Group D: Argentina and Nigeria offer us two of the tournament’s best attacking units in Ángel Di María, Gonzalo Higuaín, Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero from the South American nation against Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa and Victor Moses, which will be more than enough to get them into the last 32.

I hope the remaining progressions will look something like this:

  • Group E: Brazil and Switzerland
  • Group F: Germany and Sweden
  • Group G: Belgium and England
  • Group H: Colombia and Senegal

I certainly hope that you are enjoying the festival of football as much as I am.

Do svidaniya, byd zdorov (Goodbye, until next time, keep well)

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This article was paid for by Betway.

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