We begin our World Cup preview series with Group A, consisting of the hosts Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and favorites Uruguay, thanks to big-tournament experience and talented striking duo.
No team in the world possesses a striking duo like Uruguay have in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Both 31, with a combined 92 goals in 197 caps for the national side, going through the relative highs of the national side in the last 8 years, including the WC semifinal in 2010 and winning the Copa America a year later.
La Celeste looked impressive during the South American qualifiers, finishing second behind Brazil, despite missing Suarez through the first four matches and Cavani in the first two.
Oscar Tabarez, guiding the national side since 2006, hasn’t changed much to his rather successful formula over the years. The squad relies on the experience of Suarez, Cavani, and captain Diego Godin, who leads the heart of the defense next to his younger teammate from Atletico Madrid, Jose Maria Gimenez.
Youth and replacing older players is an issue with this squad, especially in the midfield, which seems to be the Achilles heel, potentially. Matias Vecino and Nahitan Nandez are expected to start in the middle, alongside Rodrigo Bentancur Giorgian De Arrascaeta. Uruguay, besides their immense talent up front, relies on a tenacity and intensity that makes up for their flaws. They’ll need the younger counterparts of this squad to catch up quickly with the stars of previous tournaments to make sure Uruguay, once again, leaves an impressive mark.
Hector Cuper leaned heavily on Mohamed Salah to take him through the qualifiers, getting Egypt to the World Cup for the first time since 1990 and only the third time in this football-crazed nation. Quite often Africa’s strongest side in local competitions, it’s been difficult for the pharaohs to translate their dominance in the difficult and unforgiving World Cup qualifiers.
Egypt’s biggest blessing heading into the tournament is Salah – the best player in the Premier League and perhaps all of European football this season. He was also the top scorer in the African qualifying matches. Cuper plays conservatively, relying on Salah’s brilliance to provide the finishing, winning touch. When that doesn’t work? Well, then there are problems. Salah has 33 goals in 57 caps for Egypt. The next best scorer has 5 goals (two players actually). One of them, Mohamed Elneny, maybe the team’s most influential figure in terms of mentality, is in doubt due to injury.
Salah plays differently for Egypt than he does for Liverpool. He’ll come after a grueling season – 38 league matches and a deep run in the Champions League. Motivation isn’t going to be a problem, but staying fresh might be. If Egypt struggle in getting their best player chances, it might be a difficult group stage, especially as they start the tournament against Uruguay.
On paper, this might be the weakest team in the World Cup next to debutants Panama and perhaps, surprisingly, Russia. Only three players in the squad play outside Saudi Arabia, mostly due to the failed deal of loaning star Saudi players to Spain.
But still, there has to be something worthwhile about this team, which has constantly underperformed in recent years, be it the World Cup qualifiers or the Asian Cup? Juan Antonio Pizzi is just another big name in a long line of coaches who are given very little leeway with the Green Falcons, who have drawn twice and lost 7 matches in their last 3 World Cup visits (1998-2006).
The star of the squad is Yahya Al Shehri, whose move to Leganes might end up backfiring due to little to no playing time in the months leading up to the tournament. He tends to roam freely behind Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, the side’s top scorer with 28 goals in 38 caps. Fahad Al-Muwallad, on loan at Levante (which means no playing time), is another dangerous player who usually plays on the wing. If anything is to come for the Saudis, it’ll be from one of these three, although don’t be surprised if the trio isn’t enough to make a better showing than usual for Saudi Arabia.
Assuming Russia will become the second World Cup host nation to miss out on the knockout stage isn’t far-fetched. Yes, the group isn’t very difficult, but Russia, who looked bad in the Confederations Cup last summer and throughout most of their friendly matches, aren’t the kind of team to easily take advantage of such a group.
The team tries to rely on an offensive trio of Alan Dzagoev, Fyodor Smolov, and Aleksandr Golovin, but the high pressing, quick transition style Stanislav Cherchesov is trying to implement has rarely clicked besides random instances. The fact that 38-year old Sergei Ignasevich is still such a key factor says a lot.
The recent Euro tournament, in which Russia looked awful, failing to win once and barely squeezing out a draw against England in the 90th minute, is probably a fair assessment of where this team is right now.
You can’t count out a home side due to support and, well, borderline foul play by officials, sadly part of every major sporting tournament. Uruguay should finish first in this group considering their superior squad in all phases, with Egypt the likely 2nd place team, due to their superstar and the weakness of the other two teams.