With the FIFA World Cup 2018 set to kick off in a matter of days, we bring you the lowdown on Group A comprising of hosts Russia, Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The wait for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is almost over. The much-awaited extravaganza of the summer will begin in under two weeks’ time as 32 teams will go up against each other to be crowned the champions of the world.
The draws for the group stages threw out a number of interesting match-ups and here at the Hard Tackle, we will bring you an extensive analysis of each of the eight groups, starting with the Group A.
Group A – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay
June 14: Russia v Saudi Arabia
June 15: Egypt v Uruguay
June 19: Russia v Egypt
June 20: Uruguay v Saudi Arabia
June 25: Uruguay v Russia; Saudi Arabia v Egypt
Russia haven’t had the best of the fortunes in international tournaments recently. Currently occupying the 66th position in FIFA World Rankings, they go into the World Cup as the second lowest ranked of the 32 participating teams and will kick things off with an encounter against Asian nation Saudi Arabia, in what will be one of the most low-profile contests of the competition.
Following their exploits in the Euro 2008 where they reached the final four, the Russians have failed to make it past the group stage in any of the international competitions and had even failed to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Led by manager Stanislav Cherchesov, they will be hoping to bring an end to their dismal performances on home soil.
They will have their work cut out though, if they are to achieve progress, especially given the reports of infighting between the players and the coach doing the rounds of late.
Coming to the 28-man provisional squad announced by Cherchesov, there were a few big names like Aleksandr Kokorin and Victor Vasin missing through injuries while there were call-ups for veterans Sergei Ignashevich and Yuri Zhirkov, with goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev set to lead the team.
Key Players: Igor Akinfeev (c), Aleksandr Golovin, Fyodor Smolov
With 104 appearances for the national team, captain Akinfeev has garnered a lot of experience and has been an integral part of the team for a number of years now. He, along with the 21-year old central midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, the poster boy of Russian football, will play a huge role for the hosts in the World Cup. Striker Fyodor Smolov, who has 12 goals in 30 games for the national team, will also be a pivotal member of the squad.
The lowest ranked team in the FIFA World Cup 2018, 67th-placed Saudi Arabia will go into the tournament in not the most ideal circumstances, having only recently appointed a new manager in Juan Antonio Pizzi.
The Asian nation fired Edgardo Bauza just before the draws for the group stages, having appointed him in September last year following the sacking of Bert van Marwijk. The unstability and the chopping and changing is surely set to have an adverse effect on their campaign in Russia.
Saudi Arabia qualified directly to the World Cup, courtesy of a second-place finish in Group B of the AFC Qualifiers behind Japan and ahead of Australia. Their last appearance in the competition came in 2006, when they were ousted in the group stage and the round of 16 exit in their debut in 1994 remains Al Suqour’s best performance.
The squad has a good balance between youth and experience, with veterans like Osama Hawsawi and Taisir Al-Jassim combined with the 23-year old midfielder Fahad Al-Muwallad, who plays for La Liga side Levante and has 10 goals in 42 international appearances.
Key Player: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi
Having made his debut in 2009, the 31-year old Al-Sahlawi has gone on to make 38 appearances for Saudi Arabia and has netted 28 goals so far in his career, and is the sixth highest goal-getter for his country. He was instrumental in propelling Saudi Arabia to the main event in Russia, scoring 16 goals in the qualifying campaign and will be hoping to make a similar impact next month.
Despite having been a dominant force at the continental level in Africa, Egypt failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup on six occasions in a row following their group stage exit back in 1990. So when Mohamed Salah scored a dramatic last-minute penalty to lead his team to a 2-1 win over Congo which led to their qualification, it sparked wild celebrations in the country.
Hector Cuper’s side have been riding high following their run to the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations last year and will be hoping to make a strong impact on their long-awaited return to the biggest stage of world football.
Currently ranked 46th by FIFA, the Pharaohs, led by the magical Salah have what it takes to spring a few surprises along the way in Russia. However, a recent injury to the Liverpool attacker, which has cast a doubt on his involvement in the showpiece event, has somewhat soured the nation’s joy of being back among the best teams in the world.
Without a doubt, Salah is the biggest name in the squad for Egypt, but they are not all about him as they have a number of other proven players in Ahmed Hegazi, Mohamed Elneny and Ramadan Sobhi, while the 45-year old goalkeeper and captain Essam El Hadary will also be an influential presence.
Key Player: Mohamed Salah
The hopes of the entire nation will be on the shoulders of one man, Mo Salah. The 25-year old has had a spectacular season with Liverpool, as he went on to plunder 44 goals in all competitions, winning a good number of personal honours along the way.
The injury he picked up in the UEFA Champions League final last weekend couldn’t have come at a worse time, but with reports emerging that he will be able to feature in Russia, there will be an air of positivity in the Egyptian camp.
One of the dark horses of the competition, Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguay will be the overwhelming favourites to top Group A. La Celeste enter the main competition with the honour of being the second best team in South America, only behind Brazil, having outdone the likes of Argentina and Colombia in the qualifiers.
The 71-year old Tabarez has been at the helm of things for over 10 years now and along with Germany’s Joachim Low will be the longest-serving manager of a team in the competition. Having overseen a fourth-place finish back in 2010, before a disappointing second round exit in Brazil four years ago, the experienced manager will be hoping to take his team all the way in Russia.
And they most certainly have the tools needed to do so. In Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, they have a solid defensive partnership, while goalkeeper Fernando Muslera and Cristian Rodgriguez have been playing at this level for years now. Add to that, the up and coming talents like Nahitan Nandez, Matias Vecino and Federico Valverde, there is a good blend of flair and doggedness in the squad.
Key Players: Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani
While the Uruguayan squad is filled with a number of talented players, all eyes will be on two men – Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Counted among the most lethal marksmen across the world, the two forwards are the leading goalscorers for La Celeste, with Suarez bagging 50 strikes and Cavani netting 42 goals. Both are coming on the back of a successful campaign with their respective clubs and will be key for Uruguay’s progression in the competition.
Likely to Qualify: Uruguay and Egypt
As mentioned above, Uruguay are the outright favourites to win this group given their proven pedigree and experience and the fact that the quality of the players in their squad is a class apart, compared to their opponents in the group. And Egypt are most likely to pip hosts Russia for the second spot in the group, although a lot will depend on whether Salah is fully fit by the time the World Cup kicks off.