World Cup 2018: How Russia Has Become The Tournament's Underdog

The World Cup is well and truly in full swing over in Russia right now. We have seen all 32 teams play and most more than once as we make our way through the second round of group games. The first week threw up an awful lot of shock results. If Brazil, Argentina, and Germany were all to make it to the semi-finals of this year's tournament that wouldn't be a massive surprise to most, they do have eleven World Cups between them after all. However, none of them managed to pick up wins in their opening matches, and all were against teams that they should have swept aside. Argentina and Brazil drew 1-1 with Iceland and Switzerland respectively, and Germany suffered a 1-0 defeat to Mexico.


The honor of hosting the 2018 World Cup has fallen to Russia, of course. The host nation is always the first team to book their spot at the tournament as they are the only ones who don't have to go through the arduous task of qualifying. That can be both a curse and a blessing. Direct passage to a World Cup is obviously a good thing on the surface, but it means you get a lot less game time in the build to the tournament. That's game time many believed Russia could have done with. Leading into this World Cup, Russia was the lowest ranked team according to FIFA of all 32 nations competing, all the way down in 70th below the likes of Saudi Arabia and World Cup debutants, Panama.

The lack of soccer played in the build to the tournament coupled with Russia's current crop of players and their lowly FIFA ranking led some to label them the worst Russian side of all time. Not the kind of thing you want being said about you heading into a World Cup that you are the hosts of. As always, the host nation opened the tournament, and Russia's first game was against aforementioned Saudi Arabia, the second-worst team at the tournament according to FIFA's rankings. The world was watching, and perhaps more worryingly for the players so was Vladimir Putin who was in attendance at the match. Thankfully for Russia, it took just twelve minutes for them to get off the mark, Gazinskiy putting them a goal to the good. Four more followed, two of which came during injury time, and the hosts kicked off their tournament with a thumping 5-0 win.


The match may have been against Saudi Arabia but nobody, including Russian fans, would have been expecting such a convincing victory. Opening a World Cup with a win instantly takes some of the pressure off the players, and it meant they could look ahead to their next game against Egypt. A tougher challenge than Saudi Arabia without question, especially with Liverpool's world beater, Mohamed Salah declared fit to play. Even the return of Salah couldn't stop Russia though. After a goalless first half, the hosts came out looking hungry and within 20 minutes they managed to put three past the Egyptians. Salah's men pulled one back via a penalty, but it was too little too late for Egypt.

Two victories and eight goals in their first two games means that Russia has made the best start to a World Cup of any host nation in the history of the tournament. That's across 21 World Cups dating all the way back to the very first one in 1930 that was won by Uruguay. No one would have been expecting them to break a record like that. Admittedly they don't have the trickiest group at the tournament, but most fans would have questioned whether they would make it to the knockout stages nonetheless. The favorites from their group would have been Egypt and Uruguay, however, the former is already out and Russia's third and final group game with the latter will simply be to decide who finishes first as both teams are already through to the round of sixteen.


Even though they are already through, Uruguay will be Russia's first real test. Two time World Cup winners with the likes of Luiz Suarez and Edison Cavani in their ranks, if Russia can get a result when they play Uruguay on Monday then some fans may even start to believe that they can go all the way. What's worrying for Russia is who potentially awaits them in the next round. While Iran is still in with a chance of qualification from group B, the likelihood is that Spain and Portugal will finish first and second. That means a big team will await Russia in the second no matter what happens. They may have beaten Saudi Arabia and Egypt with ease, but their next two matches will truly test how right or wrong people were to write them off before a ball had even been kicked.


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World Cup 2018: How Russia Has Become The Tournament's Underdog