The long wait is almost over as the 2018 World Cup kicks off in anger on the 14th of June.
In the first of our group-by-group previews, we take a look at Group A – featuring hosts Russia, Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Overall, it’s not the strongest of groups – and in many ways that could make it harder to predict
We’ve run the rule over all four teams in Group A, and here’s how we see it panning out:
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 70th
Best World Cup Finish: Group Stage (1994, 2002, 2014)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Aleksandr Golovin: One of the few players in the Russian side with much in the way of star quality, what Golovin lacks in experience he makes up for in creativity and potential – not to mention being a ferocious crosser of the ball. The 22-year-old is reported to have some of Europe’s biggest clubs and Arsenal in the hunt for his services, and he will be key to both facilitating Russia’s attacks and rousing a lethargic footballing public.
A strong World Cup will almost see a bidding war started for the midfielder.
Verdict: This is not a strong Russian team, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, outside of home advantage, it’s hard to make a case for how they could finish ahead of either Egypt or Uruguay.
There is not a whole pile of optimism surrounding this side either. Manager Stanislav Cherhosov has failed to rouse the national morale since he took the reins after a disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, and the very real worry is that this side could replicate that campaign and face an early exit. Confusion over his preferred starting eleven hardly helps inspire confidence either.
They will challenge to the best of their ability, and a strong victory over Sudia Arabia could change their outlook, but that is more out of optimism rather than belief.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 14th
Best World Cup Finish: Winners (1938, 1950)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Round of 16
One to Watch – Nahitan Nandez. Oscar Tabarez’s 4-4-2 formation has put added pressure on midfielders such as Nandez, but the Boca Juniors man is well used to that. The 22-year-old was the captain of the national side at the U20 World Cup in 2015, and since then he has slowly been integrated into the senior setup.
In a midfield that looks set to be more creative than might be expected, Nandez could play a key role from the base of the centre.
Verdict: Group favourites, and with very good reason. In Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, Uruguay possess one of the most potent attack lines in international football – and if they can combine well in a front two, none of the other three teams will prove to be much of a match for them.
Behind those two, however, is a strong defence. Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez are part of the notoriously-mean Atletico Madrid backline, and although full-backs Martin Caceres and Guillermo Varela aren’t quite up to that standard, the centre-halves more than make up for that.
A squad that was in danger of ageing out has been revitalised by several members of Uruguay’s under-20 squad, with the likes of Nandez Rodrigo Bentaceur of Juventus desperate to make an impression, and while the toughness in the Uruguayan spine remains, the hint of creativity that has been injected makes them a more intriguing and unpredictable prospect.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 45th
Best World Cup Finish: Group Stage 1990
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did Not Qualify
One to Watch – Mo Salah: It’s an obvious one, and one can say that quick winger Trezeguet is also worthy of mention, but the fact remains that the world is dying to see how Salah performs on the biggest stage of his career – and with over 70% of his side’s goals in qualifying, nobody deserves it more than him.
A shoulder injury has put a major dampener on proceedings, however, so if Egypt don’t fare well in his absence – however long that may be – the glimpse of Salah in the 2018 World Cup could be fleeting.
Verdict: Traditionally strong in the Cup of African Nations but oddly lacking in the World Cup, this is only the third time that Egypt have qualified for the competition. Their lack of attacking prowess has let them down in the past, which is why they can thank their lucky stars for Mo Salah.
In Hector Cuper, the Pharaohs have a manager who taps into (and enhances) their defensive organisation, believing that building from the back is the best way of achieving victory. It is a method that doesn’t lend itself to performances of enthralling brilliance but can be doggedly effective.
Much will depend on the fitness of Salah in the group stage but even having the Liverpool man fit for one of these matches – in such a poor group – will likely give them the points they need to reach the last 16.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 67th
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 (1994)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did Not Qualify
One to Watch – Fahad al-Muwallad: The omission of playmaker Nawaf Al-Abed was something of a surprise, especially given his form in qualifying, but his exclusion means that someone else can step in and fill the creative void. That could well be al-Muwallad, an unpredictable winger and a player that will almost certainly be the one that his teammates will look towards to make something happen.
Verdict: Having taken charge of the side just seven months ago, manager Juan Antonio Pizzi has his work cut out for him in shaping Saudi Arabia into being a competitive outfit. Like Cuper with Egypt, Pizzi prefers to work with a strong defensive foundation, though he hasn’t really had much time to implement that fully yet.
In a group such as this, they will always maintain hope of progression – and it wouldn’t be a massive shock if they snuck through – but staying competitive for as long as possbile will be their main aim in this tournament.
Prediction: Each team in this group is not without its faults going into this tournament, but it’s hard to look past Uruguay and Egypt for qualification. Russia may be inspired as the hosts and Saudi Arabia may end up playing above themselves but the opening game between the two will probably only decide who finishes in third place.
4 Saudi Arabia