Today at the World Cup: Thursday, June 14

After the debate, discussion, hype and anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today.

Thirty-two nations from five confederations will clash over the next month across 12 different venues as they battle for football’s ultimate prize.

Will Germany retain their title? Can Brazil, France or Argentina dethrone the holders? Or could this be the moment England finally end 52 years of hurt?

Each morning during the tournament we’ll bring you an overview of what’s coming up that day. Here’s what you can expect on day one of the 2018 World Cup…

World Cup fixtures

World Cup venues

Who’s playing today?

Russia v Saudi Arabia (Group A) – Moscow (Luzhniki), 4pm

What’s the deal?

All eyes will be on Russia when the hosts begin the 2018 World Cup against Saudi Arabia.

It’s hardly a glamour tie to start proceedings – Russia are ranked 70th in FIFA World Rankings, while their opponents are 67th – but the pressure will be on the home side to get off to a fast start after their dismal showing at Euro 2016.

Merse’s prediction

Russia 1-0 Saudi Arabia

These are the two struggling teams, but I’ve just gone for Russia to win this game – but only just – given their home advantage. I always find that with teams at home, that just gives them that little bit more.

PAUL PREDICTS: 1-0 (4/1 with Sky Bet)

Three to watch

Igor Akinfeev – Russia’s captain has featured more than 100 times for his nation between the sticks, and has won six league titles with CSKA Moscow. He will expect to keep a clean sheet here against Saudi Arabia and give his team-mates the platform to clinch an opening game win to get their campaign off to a positive start.

Salem Al-Dawsari As Saudi Arabia looked for innovative ways of improving their players, they struck up a deal with La Liga to send a number of them to Spain to test themselves at a higher standard. Few did anything of note but at Villarreal Salem Al-Dawsari proved himself against Real Madrid, coming off the bench when his team were 2-0 down but the injection of his pace and energy helped them to earn an unlikely point.

Anton Miranchuk – Alongside his twin Alexey, the midfielder is tipped to be the breakout Russian talent. A debutant at 17 for Lokomotiv Moscow, he only has six full international caps, whereas his brother has 12 more but Anton has finally come out of his shadow thanks to his constant work ethic.

Also look out for…

The opening ceremony

Always one to divide opinion and the spectacular showpiece planned to raise the curtain in Russia is bound to be no different. The ceremony is scheduled to start at 2pm, two hours ahead of Russia v Saudi Arabia, at the Luzhniki Stadium. There will be 500 dancers and gymnasts, plenty of fireworks and a rendition of Live It Up, the official World Cup song featuring Will Smith. Robbie Williams will also be involved, it has been confirmed.

VAR’s Russia debut

Will the introduction of Video Assistant Referees cause World Cup chaos or prove a welcome addition to the competition?

Controversial incidents will be replayed on big screens inside grounds so fans can see why decisions were reached and, curiously, VAR officials in the Moscow control room will watch games in full kit.

FIFA director of referees Massimo Busacca insists officials are ready but Pierluigi Collina, chairman of FIFA’s referees’ committee, admitted: “VAR officials sweat with the stress – believe me.”

0:51 The chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee Pierluigi Collina explains how VAR will work in the World Cup this summer

England news conference

Gareth Southgate’s players will be back on the training pitch in Repino; catch part of their morning session on Sky Sports News from 9.15am, UK time. One of Southgate’s players will face the media at around 1.30pm.

1:32 England players and staff were presented with salt bread ahead of their first training session in Russia Stat of the day

No goalkeeper has conceded more goals at World Cups than Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed Al-Deayea, who shipped 25 goals over four World Cups from 1994 to 2006.

On this day

On June 14, 2006, Saudi Arabia were denied victory by a 92nd-minute equaliser by Tunisia as the game ended 2-2. After being drubbed 8-0 by Germany in the previous World Cup, little was expected of them in Germany, but they were on the brink of an opening game win until the final moments in Munich.

It turned out to be the only point Saudi Arabia managed in Group H, losing 4-0 against Ukraine in their next fixture before heading home following a valiant 1-0 loss to Spain.

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