By all counts, Group A is relatively straightforward. Uruguay will be the team to beat and is tipped to top the group. Russia or Egypt is likely to take the second spot and, hence, the pivotal clash will be the June 19 match at St Petersburg between the two. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is expected to make up the numbers.
Uruguay has a rich World Cup history. It won two out of the first four editions, including the inaugural one in 1930. Even though its best efforts since then have been three fourth-placed finishes, it is always in the conversation. Russia 2018 will be no different. In Luiz Suarez and Edinson Cavani, coach Oscar Washington Tabarez has one of the deadliest front twos in the world.
And behind them, a clutch of promising youngsters are waiting to make a name. It was when key components of his team – particularly the midfield – started ageing that Tabarez turned to the youth. Some of the best talents from the under-20 team, such as midfielders Federico Valverde of Real Madrid and Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus were promoted to occupy key positions. This supply line of players is Uruguay’s biggest strength. Of the last 24 players that Tabrez has added after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, only three hadn’t featured in junior competitions. Such youthful exuberance, coupled with the experience of Cavani, Suarez and defender Diego Godin, makes it the favourite to top Group A.
Even though Suarez and Cavani both play the No.9 position for their respective clubs – Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain – it doesn’t seem to have stopped them from combining effectively as a strike duo nationally. Yet, Suarez’s is the more pronounced role. The 31-year-old is Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer with 50 goals (Cavani has 42). But the Barcelona forward has more than double the number of assists – 26 to 12 – making him crucial to Uruguay’s chances.
Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera, Martin Silva, Martin Campana.
Defenders: Diego Godin, Sebastian Coates, Jose Maria Gimenez, Maximiliano Pereira, Gaston Silva, Martin Caceres, Guillermo Varela.
Midfielders: Nahitan Nandez, Lucas Torreira, Matias Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur, Carlos Sanchez, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Diego Laxalt, Cristian Rodriguez, Jonathan Urretaviscaya.
Forwards: Cristhian Stuani, Maximiliano Gomez, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez.
World Cup record
Champion in 1930, 1950
It would be fair to say that Russia is in the World Cup only because it is the host. This is probably the weakest Russian squad in history and this has reflected in the results. At the Confederations Cup last year, it won just one game and since then, from eight international friendlies it has lost four, drawn three and won one. Russia is missing key personnel both in defence and attack.
Three veteran defenders in the Berezutski twins, Vasili and Alexey, and Sergey Ignashevich have retired and those expected to replace them, Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya, are injured. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov has used as many as 10 centre-backs in the last two years and still doesn’t know his best pairing. The loss of Alexander Kokorin following a cruciate surgery is a big blow. The Zenit St Petersburg forward had scored 19 goals in the first half of the season alone. Midfield is the only area where Cherchesov can bank upon some promising talent in Alexander Golovin, Alan Dzagoev and the Miranchuk brothers, Anton and Alexsey. Yet, Russia can progress. In the battle for second spot, if it can beat Egypt, a round-of-16 place will be within grasp.
In the absence of Alexander Kokorin, much will depend on Krasnodar striker Fedor Smolov. The 28-year-old has been the leading scorer in the Russian Premier League in two of the past three seasons. But, despite having netted twice against Spain in a 3-3 draw last November and scoring his side’s lone goal in a 3-1 defeat to France in March, Smolov isn’t prolific for the national team. This has to change if Russia is to do well.
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev, Vladimir Gabulov, Andrei Lunyov.
Defenders: Mario Fernandes, Vladimir Granat, Sergei Ignashevich, Fyodor Kudryashov, Ilya Kutepov, Andrei Semyonov, Igor Smolnikov.
Midfielders: Denis Cheryshev, Alan Dzagoev, Yuri Gazinsky, Alexander Golovin, Daler Kuzyaev, Anton Miranchuk, Alexander Samedov, Alexander Yerokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Roman Zobnin.
Forwards: Artyom Dzyuba, Alexei Miranchuk, Fyodor Smolov.
World Cup record
Fourth place in 1966
No team at the World Cup is probably as dependent on one player as much as Egypt is. When Mohamed Salah was forced out injured during the Champions League final, it led to mass hysteria. However, it is inconceivable that Salah might not play in Russia, even at just 50 per cent fitness. While he is without doubt among the world’s best attacking players, Egypt under Hector Cuper is a defensive set-up.
On an average, it has conceded only 0.5 goals per match and in more than three years since Cuper took the job, Egypt is yet to lose by more than a goal. Scoring has been a problem, but as Portugal showed at the 2016 European Championship, success can be achieved by grinding through. Behind Salah, Mohamed Elneny is key to controlling the midfield. He was in fine form in the second half of the season for Arsenal before injuring his ankle. He will definitely play at the World Cup, but his match-sharpness will be tested. Egypt, though, can realistically hope to reach the knockouts, and anything less will be deemed a disappointment.
Getting the ball to Salah and hoping for him to weave his magic will be Egypt’s only tactic. Salah generally starts on the right, but he could be brought inside if Cuper feels he could be marginalised. A free central role, devoid of any defensive responsibility, can allow him to roam and drift into pockets of space more easily. It is likely that Salah may not be risked against Uruguay in the opener. But against Russia and Saudi Arabia, he will be raring to go.
Goalkeepers: Essam El-Hadary, Mohamed El-Shennawy, Sherif Ekramy.
Defenders: Ahmed Fathi, Saad Samir, Ayman Ashraf, Mohamed Abdel-Shafy, Ahmed Hegazi, Ali Gabr, Ahmed Elmohamady, Omar Gaber, Mahmoud Hamdy El-Wensh.
Midfielders: Tarek Hamed, Mahmoud Abdel-Razik Shikabala, Abdallah El-Said, Sam Morsy, Mohamed Elneny, Mahmoud Kahraba, Ramadan Sobhi, Mahmoud Trezeguet, Amr Warda.
Forwards: Marwan Mohsen, Mohamed Salah.
World Cup record
13th in 1934
Not finishing last should be the prime target for Saudi Arabia. Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi is its third manager since September and he is yet to take charge in a competitive game. Whether he will be able to impress upon his players the kind of football he wants to play – positive and open – is a big question mark.
Perhaps the decision to send three of its standout attackers Salem al-Dawsari, Yahya al-Shehri and Fahad al-Muwallad on loan to Spain may have helped in this. But the three recorded only two appearances between them, completely defeating the purpose of gaining valuable exposure and also leaving them short of match practice. As a result, goals will be hard to come by and Saudi Arabia will instead focus on solidity. There is experience in the backline in the form of 34-year-old Osama Hawsawi, but the defence might come undone against a pacey forward line. Hence, in spite of being placed in a relatively easy group, Saudi Arabia will find it extremely tough to reach the second round.
Mohammad al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals in the qualifying and was instrumental in his country making it to Russia. But, like most of his teammates , the lack of playing time against quality opponents might hurt. In March, the 31-year-old spent three weeks training with Manchester United as part of an agreement between the club and Saudi Arabia. How much this would have helped sharpen hi skills will be seen in the opening match against host Russia.
Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al-Owais, Yasser Al-Musailem, Abdullah Al-Mayuf.
Defenders: Mansoor Al-Harbi, Yasser Al-Shahrani, Mohammed Al-Breik, Motaz Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Ali Al-Bulaihi.
Midfielders: Abdullah Al-Khaibari, Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri, Abdullah Otayf, Taiseer Al-Jassim, Houssain Al-Mogahwi, Salman Al-Faraj, Mohamed Kanno, Hattan Bahebri, Salem Al-Dawsari, Yehya Al-Shehri.
Forwards: Fahad Al-Muwallad, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, Muhannad Assiri.
World Cup record
Round of 16 in 1994