Road to Russia: World Cup 2018 – Group A Preview
The Road to Russia is well underway and we’re now just weeks away from the start of the tournament. In the first of a series of articles, we’ll be looking in detail at each group in the 2018 World Cup in Russia and which teams and players are the ones to watch.
Group A consists of hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay. It’s fair to say that Group A is one of the weaker groups. That’s not to say it’s not without world class players though. Mohamed Salah and Luis Suárez are two of the best players in the world and could even be challenging for the tournament’s golden boot.
But will their respective teams – Egypt and Uruguay – make it through? And what about hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia? To find out, we’ll take a closer look at each team and how realistic are their championship hopes.
Russia qualified for the tournament as hosts, so they’ve had less competitive football than most in the lead up. Since the turn of the millennium, Russia have featured at the 2002 and 2014 World Cups, though they failed to make it out of the group stages at either.
On paper at least, it’s one of the weakest Russian squads we’ve seen for a while. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov took the job after a disastrous EURO 2016 competition, where Russia earned just a single point in the group stage. Russia are the lowest ranked of all the teams featuring at the competition.
As hosts, Russia will kick-off the tournament with the first match against Saudi Arabia on 14 June. This is a must win match, as Saudi Arabia are probably the weakest of the three opponents Russia will face in the group stage.
Alan Dzagoev will perhaps be the first name on the team-sheet. The CSKA Moscow midfielder is relatively experienced, having featured in EURO 2012 where he scored three goals in the group stage, and at the last World, although he missed the 2016 EUROs with a metatarsal injury.
Fans will hope that goals come from Fyodor Smolov and Aleksandr Kokorin. Igor Akinfeev is an experienced keeper who captains the team.
Coming second in qualifying to Japan in Group B of the Asian AFC qualification round, Saudi Arabia were granted direct qualification to the World Cup in pot four.
Al-Suqour have been a regular feature of the Asian Cup, but last featured at a World Cup in 2006 in Germany, where they failed to win a single group game. Their best performance at a World Cup is reaching the second round in 1994, where they were knocked out by Sweden.
Preparations have featured quite a bit of drama, with two different coaches fired already. Current coach is Juan Antonio Pizzi, an experienced Argentinian manager, who is expected to take the team at least out of the group stages.
Nawaf Al Abed scored five goals in qualifying and although just 24 years old, will be the team’s most likely source of goals, along with Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, who was top scorer with 16 goals in qualifying.
Egypt are back in a World Cup for the first time since 1990 for their third appearance in the competition. In Italy, they drew their first two group games, before being eliminated after being defeated by England.
Egypt have done much better closer to home, where they have won the Africa Cup of Nations a record seven times.
After advancing through the first two rounds of the CAF qualification process, they convincingly won Group E in the third round, with four wins, one draw and one defeat, to secure qualification to Russia and entry into pot three. Egypt will face Uruguay on 15 June in their first match.
The team are on the up. Despite some complaints about coach Hector Cúper’s defensive approach, his tactics have paid off. After a poor run of not qualifying for the AFCON between 2013 and 2016, Egypt were back in 2017, where they were defeated by Cameroon in the final.
While Cúper can be credited with playing a big part in Egypt’s turn-around, most of the accolades and recognition will go to one man. Mohamed Salah – who has lit up the Premier League and was recently crowned PFA player of the year – has also been immense for country.
Salah’s penalty in a 2-1 victory against Congo in October last year secured qualification for Egpyt and the little magician has scored 33 goals in 57 appearances for his country. Achieving world wide fame due to his incredible season this year with Liverpool in the Premier League, the weight of expectation lays on Salah’s shoulders and it will be interesting to see how he handles it on the biggest stage.
Perhaps the strongest team in Group A, Uruguay looked comfortable in qualifying, despite the South American group being one of the most difficult paths to a World Cup. Second to Brazil, strong teams like Chile, Paraguay and Ecuador didn’t make it through, while Argentina left it until the last minute to qualify.
Uruguay have been a mainstay of recent World Cups. This is their third successive World Cup, after coming fourth in South Africa in 2010 and 12th in Brazil in 2014.
Manager Oscar Tabarez has been in charge throughout and this will be his fourth World Cup. The manager is not set in his ways though and has regularly brought young players through into the team, such as Federico Valverde and Nahitan Nandez.
Uruguay’s first match is against Egypt and they will be expected to win that match and this group. However, despite Tabarez’s willingness to bring new players through, many key players are ageing.
Edison Cavani – the main man in qualifying with ten goals in 18 matches – is one of those key players. That record put him ahead of team-mate Luis Suárez, but the two combined represent perhaps the most potent strike-force in the competition. Both Cavani (30) and Suarez (31) are not getting any younger though.
Elsewhere, Diego Godin is still a key figure in defence, though at 31 years old, he is another that could be looking at his last World Cup.
Which teams will qualify?
Saudi Arabia are the biggest outsiders at the bookies currently, with odds of around 7/1 to qualify. Interestingly, Russia are being highly backed, along with Uruguay.
However, with the pressure on Russia we think that the hosts could cave. They should win their opening match against Saudi Arabia, but we fancy Egypt to nick the second qualification spot, behind Uruguay.
In terms of going all the way, it’s a big, big ask from any of these teams. Uruguay are 33/1 to win the competition, while Russia are 40/1.
With that in mind and little value out of a bet on Uruguay, we’d go for Egypt to qualify at around 6/4.