LEE CLARKE'S WORLD CUP DIARY: Opening game a pleasant surprise

The World Cup began with a 5-0 win for hosts Russia.
The World Cup began with a 5-0 win for hosts Russia.

On paper, Russia taking on Saudi Arabia in the opening fixture of the 2018 FIFA World Cup didn’t sound like a contest that would leave too many neutrals weak at the knees, but you know what, it wasn’t actually a bad game.

Five goals – all in the favour of the hosts, zero input from VAR and a game that offered some neat football and nicely-taken strikes. What’s not to like?

Mo Salah will be in action today.

Mo Salah will be in action today.

I have to say that Saudi Arabia were a complete joke. Any nation from the Asian qualifying campaign that hasn’t made Russia must be utterly shocking, Sunday League standard at very best. Indeed, their performance doesn’t really get my pickle tickled for the 2026 competition where 16 additional nations will participate.

Nonetheless, the Russians could only take advantage of what was put in front of them and in Aleksandr Golovin the hosts look to have a real talent within their ranks.

The 22-year-old set the first two goals up before curling in an unstoppable free-kick in the dying moments to cap off a brilliant man of the match performance. He will certainly be one to watch beyond this competition.

Today sees the first day where three games are on the agenda. You will have to forgive me for not getting too excited for this concept, considering that I will probably miss the first two through work. You can bet your last pound however that Sky Plus will be firmly set up for the intriguing Morocco v Iran clash at 4pm.

The day’s biggie is without doubt European Champions, Portugal, taking on 2010 World Cup winners Spain in the 7pm contest and it remains to be seen what sort of impact the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo will have on the competition.

The Real Madrid man limped out of the Euro 2016 final due to a knee injury, leaving the field in tears, and although he miraculously recovered for the wild celebrations which followed their extra-time win over France, it is safe to say that a man with an ego of such proportion will be looking to set the World Cup alight over the next month.

Spain’s preparations for their forthcoming campaign have been hampered somewhat after news broke on Wednesday that boss Julen Lopetegui had been dismissed after taking the plunge and accepting a job offer from Real Madrid.

The victors from eight years ago have appointed Fernando Hierro as the temporary boss and with a plethora of world class talent at his disposal you probably wouldn’t back against the Spaniards advancing to the later stages of the competition – despite the events of the last 48 hours.

I can’t finish the latest instalment of my diary without mentioning the day’s other game between Egypt and Uruguay, which doesn’t look a bad match-up on paper.

I always find Uruguay an intriguing side and given the quality within their ranks you would fancy them as an outside bet to reach the last four of the World Cup.

In Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani they possess two of the most potent strikers in football whilst their captain Diego Godin plays central defence for Atlético Madrid, who were one of the strongest sides defensively during the 2017/18 campaign.

Any hopes that Egypt have of getting of the group will rely heavily on Mo Salah continuing his prolific Liverpool form into this tournament. It has to be said, however, that their the chances of ousting Suarez and Co into contention to qualify does look somewhat slim.