football

World Cup Preview: Group A

June 08, 2018

- Grant Whittington

The 21st iteration of the coveted World Cup is now less than a week away, as fans across the globe begin to make their way to the Russian heartlands. To celebrate this, we’ll be sharing analysis on every World Cup group, highlighting the likely winners and their most important players. So, let’s cast our eye over the teams in Group A and their key players.

Russia
We start with host nation Russia, who will kick-off the 2018 World Cup against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium on June 14th.

While there’s always excitement surrounding the host nation at the World Cup, however, it’s fair to say that Russia will not start the tournament as one of the favourites. In fact, Stanislav Cherchesov’s men have a current FIFA ranking of 70th, while the fact they did not need to qualify for the tournament means that they’ve endured a paucity of competitive action since Euro 2016.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Russian team in 1991, the side has also failed to qualify from the group stages at a World Cup on three separate occasions.

One positive for the Russians is that they follow their opening game with a match against Egypt in St. Petersburg on 19th June, meaning that they’ll have the opportunity to accumulate some points before facing off against group favourites Uruguay in the Samara Arena on 25th June.

Russia also has a technically proficient squad, with CSKA Moscow veteran Alan Dzagoev the best embodiment of this. He remains something of a focal point for Russia’s attacking play, while his link-up play with Arsenal transfer target and prolific striker Aleksandr Kokorin will prove central to Russia’s chances of progressing.

Our Verdict: Russia are priced at 33/1 to win their home World Cup and there is good reason for this. Given their track record at major tournaments (aside from a run to the European Championship semi-finals with a talented squad in 2008) and a genuine lack of star quality, they’ll most likely do battle with Egypt for the second qualification spot behind Uruguay.

 Egypt
At first glance, Egypt may well appear to be ranked as outsiders for qualification. After all, they’re appearing at their first World Cup since Italia ’90 – this will represent only their third time at the finals in history.

They were runners-up at the African Cup of Nations last year; they also won this tournament for three consecutive years between 2006 and 2010.

Egypt, who will launch their campaign against Uruguay at the Ekaterinburg Arena on 15th June, are yet to win a game at the World Cup finals and will arrive in Russia confident that they can make history on behalf of their fans.

The Egyptians will subsequently face off against Russia and Saudi Arabia on 19th and 25th June respectively, with the St. Petersburg Stadium and the Volgograd Arena hosting these matches.

They certainly boast an experienced and able squad, and one that qualified for the World Cup ahead of Uganda, Ghana and Congo. However, their chances will largely hinge on the fitness of their talisman Mohamed Salah, who scored an incredible 44 goals for Liverpool last season but injured his shoulder following a clash with Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos.

He has at least been named in the squad alongside Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny and Stoke City winger Ramadan Sobhi, and these players showcase the level of experience and quality that exists in the current squad.

Our Verdict: If Salah and Sobhi are fit and firing in attack, Egypt boast the type of fast, fluent and prolific attack that can do serious damage in Russia. In this instance, we’d potentially back Héctor Cúper’s side to oust Russia in second place, but this will depend on Salah’s recovery and level of fitness once the tournament kicks off.

Uruguay
By our reckoning, Uruguay are the clear favourites to qualify from Group A, despite being priced at a distant 28/1 to win the tournament. The two-time World Cup winners (1930 and 1950) certainly qualified in impressive manner, finishing second behind favourites Brazil while earning 31 points from their 18 matches.

The South Americans have also qualified for three of the last four finals, finishing fourth in 2010 following a semi-final defeat against the Netherlands.

Uruguay will kick-off their 2018 campaign with a tricky contest against Egypt at the Ekaterinburg Arena, before taking on group minnows Saudi Arabia in Rostov on 20th June. They’ll then finish with an enthralling clash against host nation Russia in Samara on 25th June, but by this time they’ll have hoped to have already secured their qualification to the knockout stage.

Head coach Óscar Tabárez can certainly call on a stellar squad, with his headline acts including Barcelona talisman Luis Suarez. The striker certainly has a chequered past in the World Cup, having denied Ghana a semi-final place with a goal-line handball in 2010 and bitten Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini during a group stage game four years ago).

PSG striker Edinson Cavani forms the second half of Uruguay’s outstanding strike-force, with the prolific forward now at his peak having plundered 89 goals in his last 97 club outings. The 20-year old Juventus forward, Rodrigo Bentancur is also one to watch, as fans of Serie A will be able to testify.

Our Verdict: Uruguay are the favourites to top Group A, whether you consider their World Cup pedigree or the quality of players that they possess. With the experienced Diego Godín also marshalling the backline, we can see them winning every single game during the group stage.

 Saudi Arabia
We close with the Group A outsiders Saudi Arabia, who will have the distinction of kicking off the 2018 World Cup in Moscow next week.

Arguably, Saudi Arabia have already exceeded expectations by qualifying for the 21st World Cup, finishing second in their group behind Japan and pipping a much more seasoned Australia on goal difference. This will represent Saudi Arabia’s fifth appearance at the finals, with their best performance coming in USA ’94 when they were eliminated by Sweden in the last 16.

This run included one of the best goals in World Cup history, as Saeed Al-Owairan ran almost the full length of the pitch to score brilliantly against Belgium in the group stages.

There’s no doubt that the Saudis will find it difficult to qualify from Group A, with none of their players currently plying their trade outside of the country (apart from Levante’s Fahad Al-Muwallad). However, Al-Ittihad’s talented winger Fahad Al-Muwallad can be a handful on his day, as can Yahya Al-Shehri on the opposite flank.

Our Verdict: While Saudi Arabia have previously upset the odds at a World Cup, they simply lack the players and the pedigree to achieve such an objective this time around. Unless they can upset Russia on the opening day of the tournament, they’re likely to claim the wooden spoon and head home after June 25th.

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