Live Coverage: World Cup 2018 buildup

Live Coverage: World Cup 2018 buildup
© Reuters
Sports Mole provides live updates ahead of the start of the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.

All eyes will be on Russia this afternoon as the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup - and the first to be held in Europe since 2006 - gets underway in the Soviet state.

Some 210 nations contested 872 qualifying matches to make it this far, leaving us with 32 teams battling it out for the biggest prize of them all.

Over the next four weeks or so we can expect excitement, controversy and plenty of drama to keep us gripped - this really is the greatest show on earth of them all.

It all gets up and running at 4pm with hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium, but before then be sure to stick with Sports Mole for all the latest from each camp.

12.00pmAnyone else feel like a kid on Christmas morning? Following years of preparations, and no less than £8bn spent on renovations, Russia is ready to host the greatest show on earth. Sports Mole will be with you throughout the day, bringing you all the latest from each camp and updates from the opening match a little later as Russia take on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium.

12.04pmWe have 64 matches to look forward to over the next month or so, culminating in the final on July 15, with 32 teams in contention. Only six or seven realistically have any chance of going all the way - more on those a little later - but for each competing nation the excitement levels have been steadily building. Moscow will play host to the opening ceremony and the first of those 64 matches, while 10 other cities will stage games.

12.10pmAs ever when the World Cup finals roll around, we can expect plenty of entertainment and drama in equal measure - OK, maybe after we get the Russia-Saudi Arabia game out the way with! The first of the many controversies started a little earlier than expected, in fact, as Spain sacked manager Julen Lopetegui less than 48 hours before their first match of the tournament.

Lopetegui, unbeaten since taking charge of the national side two years ago, has been replaced by sporting director Fernando Hierro for the duration of the competition. There is a debate to be had as to whether the Spanish FA were right to part company with the popular coach, who announced a day beforehand that he is to succeed Zinedine Zidane as Real Madrid manager next month.

12.15pmSpain will still fancy their chances of going all the way, though, as they boast one of the best squads in the tournament - and, in my opinion, the outright best defence. This is not the first time a team has been plagued by issues prior to the World Cup even getting under way, of course, and I think it is possible safe to say that La Roja will not be the last to experience it.

The previous examples of possible disharmony behind the scenes do not have happy endings, though, most notably in 2010 when a dispute between Nicolas Anelka and Raymond Domenech led to a team rebellion. Unlike Les Blues eight years ago, you get the impression that this Spain side - even with the Real Madrid-Barcelona divide - have a lot more togetherness about them.

Spain's players celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with victory over Albania in October 2017© Reuters

12.22pmSpain are joined by France, Brazil and holders Germany as the leading favourites to go all the way. In fact, if things work out as many predict, those four true heavyweight nations will avoid each other until the semi-finals. Germany are arguably even stronger than they were four years ago, particularly in the troublesome full-back positions, and in Timo Werner they now have a prolific striker to inevitably rival Thomas Muller in the scoring stakes.

France, man for man, arguably posses the best squad of them all, but that is proving to be something of a problem for boss Didier Deschamps. Does the respected head coach go with a 4-4-2, utilising the strengths of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud up top, or instead shift things around and use a 4-3-3 so that Paul Pogba can shine?

12.26pmBrazil have the flair and an improved back four to match - largely thanks to the absence of David Luiz - while in Tite they have one of the competition's better managers. Incidentally, this will be a rare World Cup in which none of the managers have won a Champions League at club level or succeeded in lifting a league title in England, Spain, Germany or Italy.

Tite's arrival at Brazil, and the transformation that followed, marks Brazil out as one of the strong favourites to lift the trophy for a sixth time. The Selecao only tend to lift the trophy on their own continent, though, and there could just be a little hangover from the 7-1 destruction at the hands of Germany four years ago. We do, of course, have the prospect of a Germany vs. Brazil final in Moscow a month from now - yes please!

Germany's players celebrate their 2014 World Cup triumph© Reuters

12.30pmGermany, as ever, head into the tournament as the outright favourites with some bookmakers. It is no surprise, really, given that they stormed through qualifying - again - and have the experience of going all the way last time out. Friendly results in the run-up to the competition have been pretty terrible, but no side can grind out results when it counts quite like Die Mannschaft.

Joachim Low remains in charge, and the 58-year-old's record looks even more impressive now than it did after the 2014 World Cup. In 162 matches under Low, Germany have won 107, lost 25 and drawn 30 - a 66% win rate. Three-hundred-and-ninety-one goals have been netted in that time and 151 conceded. They are very much the team to avoid in the knockout rounds.

12.35pmWe will be seeing plenty of Brazil, France, Germany and Spain over the next few days, but today is all about tournament hosts Russia. The Soviet state are in a bad way on the field, slipping to their lowest-ever ranking of 70th in the world. As luck would have it, though, they take on the second-worst-ranked side in the competition in today's opening match, with Saudi Arabia down at 67th.

If you are expecting a game of high quality, this might not be the one for you. What we can expect, however, is two sides that will go all out for victory in what could potentially be a decider for second place in Group A. Egypt will have plenty to say about that, of course, as they are fancied to finish behind strong favourites Uruguay. Either way, lose this opening fixture and Russia will surely become just the second host nation to crash out at the group stage on home soil.

12.40pmOn the topic of FIFA rankings, defending champions Germany head into the World Cup in top spot. They are closely followed by Brazil and Belgium, while European champs Portugal are in fourth and Argentina fifth. England, who we will get onto in a little more depth shortly, head into the tournament in a lowly 12th place. Expectation are low for the Three Lions, but for a good reason - as that ranking depicts.

1 Germany
2 Brazil
3 Belgium
4 Portugal
5 Argentina
6 Switzerland
7 France
8 Poland
10 Spain
11 Peru
12 England
70 Russia

12.46pmPlenty more buildup to come over the next two-and-a-bit hours, but now seems like a good time to point you in the direction of our team-by-team previews. Whether you want to know who Saudi Arabia's top scorer in qualifying was, or Russia's best hope of actually achieving something in their home World Cup, we have every base covered. Here are a select few covering the favourites, and a little prediction for each of those teams.


Our projection has them then beating Colombia in the quarter-finals before taking on Spain in the last four, and in a contest between arguably the two best squads in the tournament we are once again backing Low's side to come out on top. However, we expect their bid for back-to-back world titles to fall at the final hurdle with defeat to Brazil on July 15 in Moscow.


Our prediction sees them face Nigeria in the last 16 - a match they would be expected to win - before coming up against Uruguay in the quarter-finals, undoubtedly their toughest test up to that point. However, we expect Les Bleus to make it to at least the semi-finals, where they could face Brazil in a repeat of the 1998 final. That is a match which could go either way, but performances in the build-up to the tournament just give Brazil the edge.


A semi-final against France - a repeat of the final from 20 years ago - is a possibility, and while France boast one of the best squads in Russia, we're also backing Brazil to get through that one. The ultimate redemption and revenge could be exacted against Germany in the final, then, and considering their fearsome defensive record under Tite and the attacking flair at their disposal, we're backing Brazil to go all the way and lift the trophy for a sixth time.


A semi-final showdown with Germany could await Spain if they get past likely semi-final opponents Argentina, but we're backing the defending champions to just about come out on top in a clash between arguably the two best squads in Russia.

The World Cup trophy pictured in February 2018© Reuters

12.51pmThe World Cup is often described as a competition in which anything can happen, but that is not quite strictly true. While upsets are possible along the way, the big boys almost always tend to come out on top. Just eight nations have lifted the famous trophy, in fact, and three of those - England, France and Spain - have triumphed on only one occasion.

Kudos to five-time winners Brazil, then, as well as four-time champs Germany and Italy - they really are the cream of the crop. Argentina and Uruguay then lag behind slightly with a respectable two successes, albeit a long time ago. Each final tends to be made up of those same sides, too, so the predication of seeing France, Brazil, Spain and Germany in the semi-finals could well come true.

12.55pmThat previous list mentioned the name Italy, who will not participate in this year's competition. The Azzurri have missed out on the quadrennial competition for the first time in 60 years after finishing second to Spain in their qualifying group, before being edged out 1-0 by Sweden in the two-legged playoff. They are not the only big-name absentees, though, as European giants Netherlands failed to qualify for successive major tournaments with another disappointing campaign.

Elsewhere, the United States were dramatically denied in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying - they had England's group-stage opponents Panama to thank for that - and there will also no place in Russia for 2014 entertainers Chile. Perennial qualifiers Greece and Ghana can also be added to that list, but at their expense comes some fresh sides looking for glory.


The most goals scored at a World Cup finals is a tie between the 1998 and 2014 editions, with 171 being netted in both. Then comes 2002; 161 goals being scored in South Korea and Japan at a rate of 2.52-per-game.

The highest yellow card count was in 2006, meanwhile - 307 of them were dished out (does that include the three shown by Graham Poll to one player?!) at a rate of 4.8-per-game. A fair way behind is 2002 (260) and 2010 (245).

In terms of red cards, 28 were shown in 2006 (there must be something about the German air during the summer months), and 22 in 1998. The South Africa instalment is third in the list with 17 being dished out.

For those interested in the most common minute for a finals goal to be scored (anyone still out there?...), place your bets on the 90th minute - 76 have been scored in the final throes of a game. The final minute of the first half is next on the list, incidentally, with 48 in all.

1.09pmKickoff in the opening 2018 World Cup fixture between Russia and Saudi Arabia is now less than three hours away, so let us check out some of the better tweets doing the rounds this afternoon.

1.14pmThere has been plenty of mention of the four standout favourites, but what about those that can be considered in the next band down? That is where the likes of Argentina and Portugal come into the mix, largely thanks to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo respectively. It would be disrespectful to say that either side rely too much on their star player but, well, they rely too much on their star player.

Argentina's squad is packed full of quality, so much so that Jorge Sampaoli opted to leave out Mauro Icardi, but if Messi fails to shine then they will struggle to even make it as far as the last 16. It is a similar story for Portugal, who have a player in their ranks boasting 81 goals in 150 senior international outings, including 15 in qualifying.

1.19pmOne of the big themes ahead of the tournament is who will have the better tournament - Ronaldo or Messi? The latter has already hinted that he will retire from international football if Argentina once again fall short this summer, having lost in the final of the 2014 World Cup and done likewise in two editions of the Copa America. If lifting the famous trophy is what it takes to make Messi the greatest of all time, this could well be his last chance to achieve it.

Ronaldo, likewise, no longer has time on his side. Thirty-seven by the time the Qatar 2022 comes around, the Real Madrid ace will be desperate to get his hands on the World Cup to further cement his legacy. Winning Euro 2016 was special, even if he did watch pretty much all of the final from the sidelines due to an injury, and now he needs those alongside him to step up.

1.25pmRonaldo and Messi are both in with a shout of winning the Golden Boot, joined in the running by the likes of Neymar, Timo Werner, Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Gabriel Jesus, Kylian Mbappe, Diego Costa and Robert Lewandowski. A handful of goals could well be enough to win that individual accolade, meaning a fast start in the group stage is imperative. On that basis, you have to fancy Brazil forward Neymar and outsider Robert Lewandowski of Poland.

The current holder of the Golden Boot is James Rodriguez, who rose to prominence four years ago when netting six goals for Colombia in their run to the quarter-finals. Before that, Thomas Muller scored five times in South Africa to finish level with David Villa and Wesley Sneijder, but his higher tally of assists assured that he came out on top. Miroslav Klose, Ronaldo and Davor Suker have also won the award in the past two decades.

James Rodriguez in action for Colombia on May 26, 2018© Reuters

1.32pmWill Mohamed Salah be in contention for the Golden Boot? The Liverpool forward should not be written off after netting 43 goals in a truly incredibly maiden campaign on Merseyside that ended with him winning the FWA and PFA Player of the Year awards. Egypt are far from world beaters, but in a group that also contains Russia and Saudi Arabia, as well as a talented Uruguay side, Salah may well notch a few goals.

The problem, of course, is that the former Roma ace injured his shoulder in Liverpool's 3-1 loss to Real Madrid a few weeks back. The latest update we had on Salah is that he will almost certainly play a part in the Pharaohs' final two group matches, but whether or not he will feature in the tougher of the three games against Uruguay remains to be seen. That, in many ways, may determine whether or not he is worth a few quid in the top-scoring stakes.

1.39pmWe have managed to make it nearly two hours through this buildup without yet mentioning England in any great detail! There is a sense that the mood around the Three Lions camp is a lot different this time around compared to previous tournaments, but the proof will be in the pudding. Victory against Tunisia in next Monday's opener and England really will have momentum on their side, having also impressed in their warm-up matches.

England have a true goalscorer in Harry Kane, but questions remains over the quality of the unproven goalkeeper - likely to be Jordan Pickford - and the defensive midfield zone does not exactly boast all that much depth. Still, with expectations low, particularly on the back on the 2-1 loss to Iceland at Euro 2016, Gareth Southgate has a free hit of sorts.

1.46pmThe excitement levels are building in Moscow, where the opening match of the 2018 World Cup is soon to take place. Russia head into the tournament simply hoping to get out of a weak-looking group, having fallen down the rankings in recent times. They have not been helped by the lack of competitive fixtures, with just a few games in the Confederations Cup last summer, but the quality of their squad suggests that 70th in the world is not too far out.

Still, that will not stop supporters from cheering on their side, and there will be plenty of Saudi fans in attendance at the Luzhniki Stadium, too. The beauty of the World Cup - or any other major sporting competition - is that it can bring people together from all different backgrounds.

1.50pmHere's some more footage to give you a sense of the atmosphere that has been building not just in Moscow but all across Russia over the past few days...


The wait is so very nearly over! Just two more hours to go until the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup - and the first to be held in Europe since 2006 - gets underway. Some 210 nations contested 872 qualifying matches to make it this far, leaving us with 32 teams battling it out for the biggest prize of them all and the biggest and best competition of them all.

Football's showpiece event will take place across 11 cities, spreading close to 2,000 miles and starting and ending in Moscow. Now would probably be a wise time to inform you that we will have every match covered on Sports Mole, including in-depth previews, pre-and-post match comments as well as the games themselves, so be sure to stick with us over the next 32 days.

2.10pmIn around an hour's time I'll hand you over to my esteemed colleague Barney Corkhill, who will focus on all things Russia and Saudi Arabia. Before then, why not check out the lowdown on both sides, and I'll even throw in previews of a select few other games from the next couple of days for good measure, including our prediction for how each of the matches will pan out.

>Russia vs. Saudi Arabia, Thursday 4pm

Russia may not have a huge amount of joy at this summer's World Cup, but the home crowd should at least spur them on to a positive start at the expensive of Saudi Arabia. 1-0 Russia.

>Egypt vs. Uruguay, Friday 1pm

Egypt have struggled since losing Salah to injury and things will not get any easier for them against a highly-fancied Uruguay side. Between Suarez and Cavani, La Celeste will do damage to their opponents, while the Pharaohs will struggle to find a way past defensive duo Godin and Jose Giminez without Salah. 3-1 Uruguay.

>Portugal vs. Spain, Friday 7pm

Portugal tend to start slow in major finals, as they have not got off the mark with three points since Euro 2008. Spain should perform better than four years ago when barely putting up a fight in their title defence, meanwhile, but they have been rocked by the loss of their manager and may take time to settle down. A draw seems an obvious choice, and a result that neither side would be too disappointed with ahead of matches against Morocco and Iran. 1-1.

>France vs. Australia, Saturday 11am

There are good reasons why France are odds-on to beat Australia convincingly, and the combined threat of Griezmann, Mbappe and Lemar is high on the list. Expect the attacking trio to penetrate the opposition's defence more than once, but the Socceroos have a decent scoring record against the world's elite, so there is a chance they will sneak a consolation goal, given that two of France's key defenders are doubtful for the match. 3-1 France.

>Peru vs. Denmark, Saturday 5pm

Both nations will be aware that a victory in this game will go a long way to securing a place in the last 16 of the tournament and we think that the greater big-game experience in the Denmark ranks will prove decisive. Peru are full of confidence but Eriksen and co could prove too much in Saransk. 3-1 Denmark.

>Croatia vs. Nigeria, Saturday 8pm

The form guide suggests that Croatia are going from strength to strength under Dalic, while Nigeria's good form has petered off in the run-up to the World Cup. There is a gulf in quality between the two squads, with players such as Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic certain to give the Blades the edge over a comparatively inexperienced Nigeria side, and that will prove the difference during a semi-comfortable win for the Croats. 2-0.


Egypt manager Hector Cuper has been holding his pre-match press conference over the last 30 minutes or so ahead of tomorrow's meeting with Uruguay. The big news to come out of that presser is that star man Mohamed Salah is 'almost 100% certain' to feature, having initially been labelled doubtful for any of the Pharaohs' matches. More on that, as well as all the other big news from across the other 31 teams, can be viewed here.

Mohamed Salah in action for Egypt during a World Cup qualifying match with Congo in October 2017© Reuters

2.23pmThere are plenty of other press conferences taking place this afternoon, including one involving England midfielder Eric Dier right now, but let us instead focus on some quotes given to the press by Russia striker Fyodor Smolov.

"This is a special event for any country in this position that will stay in the memory for many years to come," he said in quotes published by FIFA's official website. "All the stadia and infrastructure that have been built for the World Cup will be the legacy of the tournament and help us to develop new generations, teach kids how to play football and improve the sport in our country."

"Legacy" tends to be the big word when justifying the hosting of events of this calibre. One figure quoted in the local media suggests that Russia spent £8bn in the 10 years between being hosted the World Cup and actually staging it - an astronomical sum. If Sbornaya do crash out at the group stage, or indeed in the first knockout round, they will hope that the tournament at least lives up to the hype without them.

2.28pmThe 2018 edition of the FIFA World Cup is expected to be watched be an estimated three billions viewers on TV across the next month, while one-and-a-half-million spectators will cram into the stadia. As touched upon a little earlier, 11 different cities will host at least one game, with 35,000-capacity Ekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg attracting plenty of headlines a few months back.

You may remember that a temporary stand had to be erected to ensure that it met FIFA requirements, and it is fair to say that it is not for the faint-hearted.

2.37pmTime to check in on the England camp now, with the Three Lions' first game just four days away. Only three members of Gareth Southgate's 23-man squad are aged 30 or over, giving this side a fresh look to it. A new formation, going with three along the back, has certainly helped to win over supporters, too, with the bland qualifying performances hopefully a thing of the past.

England are in one of the more predictable groups, on paper at least, as they are strong favourites to progress along with Belgium. The other groups are a little less predictable, however, particularly in the cases of Group D and H as each team will be confident of finishing in the top two.

Saudi Arabia




Costa Rica

South Korea



2.44pmPlenty has been said in the week leading up to the World Cup's opening fixture, from legendary figures to current pros, and here we have rounded up some of the better quotes.

Brazil World Cup hero Pele: "Neymar is to me one of the best players in the world. Today, he is more mature and he has more experience, but he isn't going to win the World Cup on his own. It's teams that win the World Cup. The greatest Brazil team of all-time was the one in 1970, with Tostao, Rivellino, Gerson and Pele all wearing the number 10 shirts for their clubs. In the 1970 World Cup, we spent more than six months together. That's why it worked."

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez: "What is good about this generation is that when they come together, they are a group of players that are prepared to work for each other and be a team. I don't think we should look any further than what we can achieve as a team and the team is made by outstanding individuals."

France striker Olivier Giroud: "I've equalled Zidane [for goals in a France shirt] and that's something no one can take away from me. Trezeguet has three goals more and I want to catch him up and score as many as I can. On a personal level, it's an objective, an ambition."

Spain playmaker Andres Iniesta: "That it's my last [World Cup] makes it special and different. I try not to have the last World Cup in my head, but to face it as if I were the first - or what it is: a very nice challenge. I do not get tired from the goodbyes, I just try to enjoy every moment. I try to taste it because, after so much time, it is still exciting to live these moments."

Andres Iniesta in action for Spain on November 11, 2017© Reuters

2.53pmThose lucky enough to have tickets for the opening game will be making their way towards the stadium now, but many more will be watching on big screens around the capital city. Here's a few more clips, including one from a certain Marc Bosnich, to further whet the appetite.

3.00pmWe have officially reached the one-hour countdown until the 2018 World Cup arrives. And with that, it is time to hand you over to my colleague Barney Corkhill who, thanks to the beauty of football's showpiece event, has become an expert of all things Saudi football.

Live coverage of events from the Russia vs. Saudi Arabia match at the Luzhniki Stadium can be viewed here, and if you want to get to know the two teams in a little more depth beforehand then head to our dedicated preview page. Enjoy!

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Russia's immortal president Vladimir Putin pictured alongside the World Cup on June 13, 2018
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