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Analysis: Russia overpower Saudi Arabia

Moscow: Saudi Arabia could not keep up with the rampant hosts as they opened their 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign with a 5-0 defeat on Thursday.

Juan Antonio Pizzi's side dominated possession and passed the ball accurately throughout the match but their lack of urgency meant they could not bring the ball into the final third and failed to record a single shot on target all night.

Defensively, the Green Falcons were far from their best as they allowed Russia to physically dominate and score at will despite not spending extended spells of time in the Saudi defensive third.

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Lively start, no end product

The Green Falcons' return to the World Cup after 12 years saw them start sharply in the first 10 minutes despite some nervy moments. Salem Al Dawsari’s versatility saw him move from his starting position on the left flank into central areas and even occasionally switching to the right as he attempted to provide a link between the Saudi midfield and attack.

This winger completed nine passes and made one key pass inside the opening 10 minutes (see below pass map), highlighting his importance to Pizzi’s team.

However, Al Dawsari's efforts were not fruitful as time wore on with the Saudis failing to produce a single clear cut chance. Left-back Yasser Al Shahrani did combine with his Al Hilal teammate on a couple of occasions, but Mohammed Al Sahlawi failed to capitalise on Al Dawsar's effective movement.

Saudi smothered by Russian pressure

Having conceded the opener 12 minutes in, Saudi Arabia were left frustrated as Russia defended in two compact banks of four for the majority of the first half, nullifying Al Dawsari’s threat and isolating Al Sahlawi upfront.

Pizzi’s men enjoyed 61 percent of possession, but far too often, their passing was horizontal and their attacks slow, causing them to end up recycling the ball through centre-backs Osama and Omar Hawsawi.

Abdullah Otayf constantly dropped between the centre-backs to help start attacks from deep, but the Russian pressure meant that Saudi were often forced to go back to goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf who was left with no choice but to hoof the ball high up the pitch (see above passing map) where the Russians dominated aerially, winning 74 percent of duels.

Al Sahlawi’s drought continues

Saudi Arabia recorded six shots to Russia’s 14 in the opening match, but all six of the Green Falcons’ efforts missed the target, while half of the Russian’s strikes were between the posts.

Starting up front at the Luzhniki Stadium was Al Sahlawi - the 31-year-old was the qualifiers top goalscorer with 16 goals - but the last of his 28 international goals came over a year ago. Such a long scoring drought was bound to have its impact on the forward’s confidence.

In Saudi Arabia’s final pre-World Cup friendly against Germany, Al Sahlawi missed a penalty and on Thursday his contribution was limited to one blocked shot. He was unable to challenge the physically superior Russian defence nor to find space inside the opponent’s box, instead remaining invisible until his withdrawal with six minutes to go.

Photo: FIFA/Getty Images

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