World Cup Preview: Group A

Group A

In a group containing the World Cup hosts, the most formidable striking duo, the most discussed footballer of 2018 and one of the unknowns of this tournament, picking a winner seems a difficult task.

Jamie Braidwood does his best to determine the winners and losers from Group A from the 2018 World Cup.

 

Russia

Amongst everything else; concerns over stadiums, questionable human rights records and fear over new-wave gangs of football hooligans, it’s easy to forget that Russia will also have to worry about actually playing in their own World Cup this summer.

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CSKA Moscow’s Alexsandr Golovin is a standout in the Russian midfield

Indeed, and certainly compared to the scrutiny Brazil were under in the build-up to their World Cup four years ago, Russia have been able to prepare for the tournament with the eyes of the rest of the world firmly on other things. But that spotlight will sharply come back into focus on Thursday June 14 as the hosts play Saudi Arabia in the opening game.

Given the strengths of their other Group A opponents, it is vital Russia get off to a flying start in Moscow. If Stanislav Cherchesov’s side can get an opening win, perhaps scoring a few goals and playing some entertaining football along the way, then the home fans will be right behind them, and maybe even some more dubious neutrals will get on their side.

Since a sparkling, Andrey Arshavin-inspired side made the semi-finals of Euro 2008, Russia have been a largely forgettable component of major tournaments. They have went out at the group stage at their last three, including in 2014 and 2016 where they didn’t win a game and didn’t play any sort of entertaining football at all.

But the team is different now. Cherchesov, the former Russian goalkeeper, was given the task of picking up the pieces following France 2016 and has changed the squad completely. Only five players out of 23 remain from two years ago, although that does include hapless goalkeeper, and captain, Igor Akinvieev and 38-year-old defender Sergei Ignashevich.

Elsewhere CSKA Moscow’s Alan Dzagoev and Villareal Denis Cheryshev are welcome inclusions. Dzagoev was injured at the last Euros and the attacking midfielder is considered to be Russia’s best player. Former Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov, now 34,  has also received a recall.

Russia were hit by the injury of striker Aleksandr Kokorin in March, who suffered an ACL and will miss the tournament. The hosts will therefore be looking to midfielders to contribute. In that respect, keep an eye out for 22-year-old midfielder Aleksandr Golovin.

The hosts aren’t exactly coming into their World Cup on a hot streak of form. Their last win, of any kind, was eight games ago in October in a friendly against South Korea. Since then they have played high-profile friendlies against some of the world’s best, without any success. There have been defeats to Argentina, Brazil and France, although they did draw 3-3 with Spain in November.

Their two latest fixtures, however, did not go to plan. A defeat away to Austria was followed up by a 1-1 draw at home to Turkey. That fixture would have been earmarked as a final send off, to catapult the hosts into form ahead of the opening game. They should, should, beat Saudi Arabia. It could be a long couple of weeks for the hosts if not.

 

Egypt

The build-up to Egypt’s World Cup has been dominated, understandably, by one man: Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian King, as he is affectionately known, is the fitness story of this summer’s tournament, following the dislocated shoulder he sustained during the Champions League final on 26 May.

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Mo Salah’s penalty sent Egypt to their first World Cup in over 30 years

At the time it seemed Salah’s, and Egypt’s, World Cup dream was over. The winger left the pitch in tears but has since offered hope to his fans by posting a series of positive messages on social media. Salah is officially in Egypt’s 23-man squad and the expectation is he will at least play some part in his country’s group games.

Salah has been world football’s breakthrough player this season. Since moving to Liverpool last summer, the Egyptian has exploded, scoring 44 times in his debut season at Anfield. He is now a star, ready to make his impact on the biggest stage possible, but his legendary status has already been confirmed in his home country, happening before he fully took off in England.

It was back in October, with Egypt on the verge of qualifying for only their third World Cup, and their first in 28 years. Egypt only needed to beat Congo at home to secure qualification and with the score at 1-1, the hosts were awarded a dramatic 90th minute penalty. Salah, having already scored in the match, stepped up and thrashed the ball into the net, sending an entire country into pandamonium.

But given Salah’s injury, it is time for the rest of the team to show that this is not a one-man show. The team are led by the experienced Argentinian coach Hector Cuper and the squad contains a number of familiar faces such as West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi, Aston Villa’s Ahmed Elmohamady and Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny – who was an injury doubt after picking up an ankle injury, but has since returned to training.

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The Liverpool forward’s shoulder injury left his tournament hopes hanging in the balance

The most notable story, though, is that of Egypt’s goalkeeper. Essam El-Hadary, at the age of 45, is set to become the oldest player to appear at a World Cup finals. The keeper made his international debut in 1996, before the likes of France’s Kylian Mbappe and England’s Trent Alexander-Arnold were even born, and has since picked up a stunning 157 caps.

Elsewhere keep an eye out for Stoke City’s young winger Ramadan Sobhi, who in the potential absence of Salah could be Egypt’s brightest spark. Ultimately though, Egypt’s chances come down to Salah’s fitness. The 25-year-old has scored 33 international goals in 57 appearances while the rest of the squad, collectively, have scored 30. That if anything underlines what will missing if Salah is absent for even a minute of World Cup action this summer.

 

Uruguay

Ah, is there any other country more suited to playing the World Cup villain than Uruguay? From famously beating Brazil at their own World Cup, in the Maracana, way back in 1950 to denying Ghana a semi-final spot at the first tournament to be held in Africa back in 2010, the Uruguayans are steeped in the history of international upsets.

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Spoiled for choice: The Uruguayans have one of the most feared strike partnerships

How is it that a little country of 3.5 million people, squashed between the giants of Brazil and Argentina, continues to qualify for major tournaments. Of course, the fearsome attacking duo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, which is as good as any other strike force at this tournament, helps, but Uruguay are more than that.

Without resorting to lazy stereotypes, Uruguay are a horrible team to play against; they’re gritty, determined, and ruthless. No player, even the stars Suarez and Cavani, is bigger than the team and the workrate of the aforementioned forward duo exemplifies that. They’re experienced too, with the core of the team having played together since South Africa in 2010. Behind Suarez and Cavani, Diego Godin, Maxi Pereira and in goals Fernando Muslera have over 300 international caps between them.

Uruguay had a mixed tournament in 2014, a month that was largely dominated by a certain buck-toothed forward. They lost to Costa Rica but then beat both England and Italy in the group stages. Then in the round of 16, without the suspended Suarez, they went out meekly  to Colombia. Suarez’s antics detracted from what was a good team that had promise. You get the sense that this time, Uruguay are fully focussed on achieving their goals – in what could be the final World Cup for some of their core brigade.

In qualifying, Uruguay were solid, finishing 2nd in the bloodbath that is the South American qualifiers ahead of Argentina, Colombia and Chile. The Group A draw suits them; they face Egypt first, which is the best time as it should be too early for Mohamed Salah to play any part, they’ll then have too much for Saudi Arabia before, in their final group match, they get to play underdogs against the hosts, Russia, and will get the chance to play their part in another upset. It’s what they do best.

 

Saudi Arabia

The Green Falcons are one of five Asian teams to reach this summer’s tournament, and are probably the most unknown. They did make the headlines earlier this year, however, when nine Saudi Arabian players were sent out on loan, at the same time, to teams across Spain.

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Saudi Arabia’s obscurity may surprise the teams in their group

This interesting move was supposed to increase interest back home in the Saudi team ahead of the World Cup, while also providing some of the players a challenge in preparation for what is a tricky Group A.

Out of the nine players who did travel to Spain for the second half of the season, three have made Saudi Arabia’s final World Cup squad. All midfielders, it seems though that none of Leganes’ Yahya Al-Shehri, Levante’s Fahad Al-Muwallad or Villareal’s Salem Al-Dawsari played any significant minutes for their temporary sides. Still, the World Cup provides some players an invaluable opportunity to show what they can do. Perhaps now they will get the chance they’ve been waiting for.

It is set to be a tough few weeks for Saudi Arabia, but they will undoubtedly take heart from some of their recent results in qualifying and international friendlies. In qualifying they finished second in their group behind Japan, but did manage to beat their group winners at home 1-0 back in September. Then last month, in two friendlies that were, again played in Spain, they beat Algeria and Greece

The match on June 14th against Russia, at the massive 81,000 seater Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, to open the World Cup, is probably the biggest of Saudi Arabia’s history. But what an opportunity it is for them to shine.

Prediction

  1. Uruguay –  7 points
  2. Egypt – 6 points
  3. Russia – 4 points
  4. Saudi Arabia – 0 points

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