Here begins the start of our World Cup group stage guide. One a day until the start. Get giddy…
Who are they?
Our hosts, and whatever feelings those two words create within you are absolutely fine. The word count doesn’t allow a full appraisal of the complexities around the awarding of this World Cup but I will say this: it is okay to be both incredibly excited about enjoying the sporting aspect whilst also having a moral objection to huge aspects of its organisation. If you think we’re being diplomatic here, wait until Qatar when we can all say what we really think.
So to football, and things don’t look promising for automatic qualifiers Russia. The VAR-flavoured Confederations Cup offered a solitary win against New Zealand and their only three actual competitive games in the last two years. You can’t draw too many conclusions from friendlies. but the odd optimistic display – 3-3 draw against an experimental Spain side – has to be balanced against a really poor home draw against Iran and comprehensive defeats to a half-paced France and Brazil.
This is a squad lacking anyone who you could say is truly world-class and also has big absentees due to injury, particularly defensively, so it’s tough to make a case for Russia beyond luck and a following wind. It already feels like match day two is going to be the key. They should have enough to beat Saudi Arabia, buoyed by opening a home tournament, but can they overcome a Salah-inspired and defensively resilient Egypt? Probably not, and then they’ll lose to Uruguay.
Being hosts can carry you a reasonable way at a World Cup and tournaments are often better for that very journey. However, it would be fair to say that this isn’t a normal situation and the reality is that Russia are a side who more than likely wouldn’t even be here if asked to qualify normally. Progressing into the knockout rounds would be a significant achievement, anything more than that a huge surprise.
Manager – Stanislav Cherchesov
An average manager in charge of a very average group of players. He was set the task of getting Russia to the semi-finals when appointed. Oh dear.
Key Man – Igor Akinfeev
Alan Dzagoev is a very decent footballer and a goal threat, but also a man with zero luck injury-wise so it has become difficult to rely on him. That leaves the position of key man to the one player most could name confidently when asked about this team, their goalkeeper. And not without reason.
The fact that Akinfeev is so important to Russia speaks volumes about the quality ahead of him. He will be busy, so it’s handy for them that he’s really good. He may not have De Gea-level whack-a-mole reflexes, and he’s prone to having one of those games now and then, but his vast experience will help a nervy defence. Those of you who have based your opinion on Akinfeev on that Champions League stat should consider as a counterpoint that he has now kept more clean sheets in all competitions than any other Russian goalkeeper in history, and they’ve had quite a few good ones.
What should we expect?
If they don’t get an immediate and lasting bump from being hosts then they’re struggling to make it out of a relatively tame group, particularly if Egypt have any say in the matter. Their ex-manager Fabio Capello has said confidently they will make the second round but he also once voluntarily picked Jimmy Bullard for an England squad.
Who are they?
I may as well say right from the off: It is tough to make a case for Saudi Arabia to be anything other than the team Russia, Egypt and Uruguay are all banking on beating. That might be a little harsh on a team who had a very decent qualifying campaign and overcame better Japan and Australia sides to avoid the dreaded play-off, but fair when you consider they haven’t won a game at the World Cup since 1994.
That last victory came via one of the all-time great overrated World Cup goals. Saeed Al-Owairan’s triumph of persistence over skill against Belgium sent them through to a knockout game they would get completely outplayed in against Sweden. Since then nothing much has happened: Fourth in a group of four in 1998, 2002 (including that 0-8 defeat to Germany) and 2006. Could they upset anyone in their first finals appearance in twelve years?
Well, it’s worth pointing out that they have a few goals in them, so that’s a start. And it’s also worth mentioning that they share those goals around so it’s tough to nullify them by simply man-marking someone. The rub is that we all know this isn’t a teamsheet that is going to scare anyone, but Fahad Al-Muwallad, Yahya Al-Shehri and in particular Nawaf Al-Abed are all decent footballers and good attacking options. Striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi’s prolific qualifying may have been bolstered by eight goals against Timor-Leste but he is a genuine threat and a physical presence defenders will have to deal with.
Manager – Juan Antonio Pizzi
Where to start with this. Firstly, the opening game against Russia will be Pizzi’s first competitive one as Saudi manager. It was actually Bert van Marwijk, now going to the World Cup with Australia, who led them through qualifying but then left over a contract dispute and questions over his commitment.
In then came Argentine Edgardo Bauza, appointed in September 2017, sacked in November 2017. So they turned to Copa América winner Pizzi who immediately dodged the Gulf Cup and instead sent a “talent team” of young players under the guidance of Croatian Krunoslav Jurcic, the man now looking after Saudi youth football.
Pizzi’s next act was to authorise a system whereby nine of his predicted squad went on loan to La Liga teams to gain experience. Those nine made one appearance in Spain’s top division between them, a ten-minute sub appearance at that for Al-Muwallad at Levante.
There’s been little time to prepare, a recognition his players need to play at a higher level and nothing much in recent friendlies to particularly inspire. There’s a suspicion Pizzi might be a really good appointment but this is way too early for him to make a lasting impact.
Key Man – Mohammed Al-Sahlawi
We’ve not gone for ‘the Saudi Messi’ Al-Muwallad here, or the experience Osama Hawsawi’s 133 caps (and counting) brings to a relatively fragile defence. If Saudi Arabia are to do anything at this World Cup they need goals and aforementioned striker Al-Sahlawi is going to have to do his bit, particularly as service shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
What should we expect?
Not a lot. Saudi Arabia should be neat and tidy in both attack and defence, and could well score against both Russia and Egypt. Pizzi’s the unknown factor, but it would be a monumental achievement to get out of the group.
Who are they?
When Mohamed Salah rolled in the last-minute penalty that secured finals qualification for the first time since 1990, an entire nation celebrated. In recent history Egypt – as both football team and country – has experienced tragedy, violence, upheaval and wide-scale political revolution, but in a single sporting moment the country was united as one.
These cases of football as lightning rod exist all around the world, but there was a definite sense of catharsis in Egypt’s campaign. Starting horribly with a 1-0 first leg defeat to Chad back in 2016, Egypt then laid a blueprint for both Roma and Liverpool to follow – look for Salah. After winning the second leg and being placed into a soft-ish group, the tactic of defending as a ten and attacking as a one proved just about successful enough.
If you think we’re overstating Salah’s impact, he scored in four of the five match days he was available, two of those goals winners including the penalty against Congo to take Egypt through. As he became a hero in Rome and Liverpool, Salah was becoming a God in his home country. Egypt have good players – Mohamed Elneny, Ramadan Sobhi, Tarek Hamed to name but three – but they also have a truly great one. A lot on his – thanks to Sergio Ramos – now-fragile shoulders.
Is he fully fit? Can he come back in the same form we’ve seen him in all season for Liverpool? I’m doubtful but a nation awaits.
Manager – Héctor Cúper
There have been far better Egyptian teams in recent history, and since that last qualification 28 years ago they have won the African Cup of Nations no less than four times. But there has never been a more organised one.
Cúper has been manager since 2015 and a divisive presence due to his safety-first nature. This is a team very much in his image, and if Salah is expected to bring fireworks it’s fair to say everyone else stands by with a bucket of sand and instructions never to return to a lit fuse. Despite having one of the best attacking players in this tournament this will be a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-1-2 well versed in becoming a 5-4-0-1 if needs be.
Still, Cuper is clever and he knows his team. Uruguay should prove too strong but Russia in particular need to be aware there will be no easy path through Hector’s plan.
Key Player – Mo Salah
Because he’s Mo Salah.
(See also Portugal: Because he’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina: Because he’s Lionel Messi)
What should we expect?
They won’t stop Uruguay scoring but Russia and Saudi Arabia are going to have to play really well to take anything off them. If you shackle Salah you may stymie Egypt going forward, but you’re still going to have to break down two walls of four or five at the other end. Qualification in second place could see them play Spain or Portugal – Salah v Ramos again anyone?
Who are they?
The best team in Group A, who will see anything less than finishing top with a minimum of seven points as a disappointment. Uruguay have two brilliant strikers, a fact that in the rapid-fire nature of a summer tournament can carry you far, but they also have excellent options in midfield and defence too. They’ll know coasting against anyone at a World Cup is dangerous but this group is just about all they could have asked for.
Uruguay still retain the spine of the side from the 2014 World Cup. And the 2010 one. The Muslera-Godin-Suarez-Cavani fault line still runs through their first eleven and sprinkled through the squad are names you’ll recognise from South Africa, Brazil, and the odd Premier League misadventure – Coates, Caceres and Stuani.
Interestingly, Uruguay are supplementing this with a very exciting next generation, particularly in midfield. Drop the name Rodrigo Bentancur if you want to look particularly cool, who could well see minutes along side the slightly more experienced Matías Vecino.
A lot think Uruguay could go deep in this tournament but they are occasionally fragile. When they’re good they usually win comfortably and in qualification they cruised through the first few match days, drew away in Brazil and looked set to qualify early. Then came the wobble that made them thankful Argentina are stuck in the boom and bust cycle. As impressive as parts of their campaign was, they also managed to lose games against Ecuador, Chile, and Peru. Then in the home game with Brazil they were pulled apart and lost 1-4 thanks to a Paulinho hat-trick.
So they look good with the odd caveat hanging in the air, the squad has depth but also inexperience. The semi-finals may prove a bridge too far with a potential game against France in the quarters, but they have the goals to do it at their very best.
Manager – Óscar Washington Tabárez
El Maestro, now 71 and with legacy completed by the generation of players now coming through the youth system he established, is at the World Cup for the last time as Uruguay manager. We did say that in 2014 as well though. And probably 2010. But this definitely feels like his last.
Tabarez remains committed to the job, but there’ll be no surprises or innovations tactically. This is a team that knows what it’s good at and will stick to it. With a nerve disorder restricting some of his time to a wheelchair this feels like the end of a wonderful career. Expect his players to respond with a big effort if it is.
Key Player – Luis Suarez
Edinson Cavani is an equal goal threat, but I would argue that after a season which even Suarez would admit has seen his powers start to wain a little he still tends to set the tempo. It was Suarez’s keenly-felt absence that many pointed to for that lacklustre game against Brazil, and nobody behind him will be allowed to shirk anything while he continues to chase and harry lost causes. His temperament has improved tenfold since going to Barca. so there should be no need for Jan Aage Fjortoft to bite anything this time.
What should we expect?
Strong on paper doesn’t always translate to the pitch and there are areas there to exploit, but they should win this group at a canter. If they do face Portugal in the next round, that could well be the end of Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup too.