- This is widely considered one of the weakest groups
- Uruguay are the clear favourites to progress
- Egypt are sweating on Mohamed Salah’s fitness
- The opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia could be a battle for third
The first action of this summer’s World Cup will take place in Group A, with the tournament kicking off with the match between hosts Russia and minnows Saudi Arabia on June 14th.
Here, we take a look at this group and at each of its four teams.
Strengths: Igor Akinfeev may be prone to the occasional howler, but the 32-year-old goalkeeper is experienced and a good shot-stopper.
Weaknesses: The biggest issue that Russia have is scoring goals.
The opening match against Saudi Arabia will be Russia’s first competitive fixture since last year’s Confederations Cup, where they beat New Zealand, but lost to Portugal and Mexico and crashed out at the group stages.
While they’ve only played friendly matches in the year since, given that they qualified for this tournament automatically as hosts, they don’t appear to have improved all that much since then, having failed to win any match since last October, when they beat South Korea 4-2 with the help of two own goals.
It should, though, be noted that Russia have played some very strong sides in their recent friendlies and that their last four matches were against Argentina (1-0 loss), Spain (3-3 draw), Brazil (3-0 loss) and France (3-1 loss). Losing to these heavyweights is nothing to be ashamed of and, in Group A, they’ll come up against much easier opposition and will be confident of taking something from the games against Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Their plan seems to be to sit back and counter attack, with coach Stanislav Cherchesov having played a back five in 16 of the 18 matches since he took over.
When that crowded back line is breached, Russia have Igor Akinfeev in goal, who is experienced and who is known for making the occasion blunder, but who is an astute shot-stopper. In the 2017/18 Champions League season, he made 4.5 saves per 90 minutes for CSKA Moscow, the sixth most of all goalkeepers in the competition.
In attack, they like to get the ball up as quickly as possible to centre-forward Fedor Smolov, who has impressively been scoring a goal every 137 minutes for Krasnodar this season, but who is often isolated up top when representing Russia.
Target: As the hosts, Russia will be simply want to make it out of their group and into the knockout rounds, as South Africa are the only other host nation to have failed to escape their group. Given how weak this group is, Russia do have a chance of making the last 16.
Strengths: The team chemistry is good, with most of the players knowing each other really well and many of them playing for either Al Hilal or Al Ahli.
Weaknesses: New coach Juan Antonio Pizzi won’t have had much time with his squad, having only taken over in November of 2017.
This is Saudi Arabia’s first World Cup since they qualified for Germany in 2006, so they will be one of the most inexperienced squads at the tournament. Not only do most of their players have little to no experience of international tournaments, but most of their squad members play their football in the Saudi Arabian league and they are not, therefore, exposed to alternative styles or to the kind of world-class talents going to Russia.
Aware of the negative impact this isolation could have, the Saudi Arabian FA struck an agreement with LaLiga back in January to send nine players to professional Spanish clubs on loan. The idea was that they’d gain experience in one of the best leagues in the world, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. In total, these exports to LaLiga played under an hour of top-flight football, 26 minutes for winger Fahad Al-Muwallad at Levante and 33 minutes for winger Salem Al-Dawsari at Villarreal.
The Saudi Arabian FA have also been busy when it comes to coaches, as they’ve now had three managers in the past year. Bert van Marwijk left after earning qualification for the team, before Edgardo Bauza lasted just two months. Now they’ve hired Juan Antonio Pizzi, who oversaw Chile’s unsuccessful qualification campaign, but Pizzi has had just half a dozen matches with his new team and it’s unlikely that his methods, which can sometimes be very complicated and alternative, will have fully taken hold.
Despite these complications, Saudi Arabia did have a good qualifying campaign and qualified automatically, avoiding the play-offs. At times, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi single-handedly led them to Russia, with the attacking midfielder scoring 16 goals, the joint-most of any player in Asian qualifying.
Target: Success for Saudi Arabia would be qualifying from their group, but that’ll be very difficult and a more realistic target might be to try for third and to avoid the embarrassment of finishing bottom.
Strengths: They have Mohamed Salah, one of the best players on the planet in 2018.
Weaknesses: They are at risk of being something of a one-man team.
It was fitting that the penalty to take Egypt to their first World Cup in 28 years was scored by Mohamed Salah, as he was their main man throughout the campaign. In total, Egypt netted eight goals in African Qualifying Group E, with five of them scored by Salah and with another two assisted by him. That means he was directly involved in 87.5% of all his nation’s goals.
Since then, Salah has only gotten better and he has put together an excellent 2018, helping Liverpool to the Champions League final and leading Egyptians to believe that their nation can escape Group A. In total, he has netted 21 goals this calendar year, which is the fourth most of all players in the top 10 leagues.
However, Salah couldn’t complete the Champions League final as he suffered a shoulder injury and had to go off injured. He immediately flew to Spain for treatment on it and is hopeful of recovering in time for the World Cup, but his participation is now in doubt and Egypt coach Hector Cuper has been left to wonder where the creativity will come from if not from Salah. Cuper generally plays a conservative 4-2-3-1 and has probably relied too much on the Liverpool man for the creation of chances.
The fact that they are something of a one-man team is Egypt’s most obvious weakness. It’s true that some other players put in good performances to help them reach Russia, but one of their other stars Mohamed Elneny is also a major injury doubt, having injured his ankle with Arsenal.
Target: With Salah, Egypt will expect to challenge for a place in the knockout rounds and should be confident of beating Russia and Saudi Arabia into second place. Without Salah, this would be a lot more difficult.
Strengths: With Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, Uruguay have one of the tournament’s best centre-back partnerships.
Weaknesses: Their central midfield is one of the weaker ones in the tournament.
Uruguay are the clear favourites to progress from Group A. In fact, they probably had a more difficult task in the cutthroat South American qualifying, when they impressively finished second behind Brazil.
They boast a number of top-quality players, especially in defence and in attack. At the back, they can reap the benefits of the Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez centre-back partnership. These two defenders play together all year round for Atletico Madrid and in the 2017/18 season they played together for their club on 27 occasions, including in the 3-0 victory in the Europa League final. They know each other very well and Uruguay can benefit from this.
Up front, Uruguay have some of the best strikers in the world. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are their starters and will terrify defences at the World Cup after scoring 31 and 40 goals respectively for their clubs in the 2017/18 season, while their reserve strikers Cristhian Stuani and Maxi Gomez netted 21 and 18 for Girona and for Celta Vigo in LaLiga.
The main weakness for Uruguay, then, lies in between their central defenders and centre-forwards. They are often overrun in midfield, but in truth they don’t mind this and they like to transition from defence to attack quickly. Coach Oscar Tabarez has been in charge of this national team for 12 years and knows his players better than anyone, so they are in excellent hands in a tactical sense.
Target: Given the quality, or lack of it, of the other nations in this group, Uruguay are rightfully targeting top spot in Group A and they’d hope to embark on a decent run in the knockout stages.
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