The World Cup; a competition the world stands still for. The ordinary procedures of every-day life for the inhabitants of 32 countries from around the world are disrupted in the name of passion, drama and the beautiful game.
Teams of 32 countries are heading to Russia – from international powerhouses to plucky underdogs who are just happy to have qualified – but only one captain, one squad, one nation will be hoisting the World Cup Trophy in Moscow in a few weeks’ time. Are the hairs on the back of your neck standing up yet?
In the days leading up to the first game of the 2018 World Cup, the 90MAAT Analysis Team will be supplying you with extensive dissections into each participant of every group so you perhaps know what to expect when you’re inevitably watching Morocco vs Iran when you know you’re meant to be doing work or study. Whilst the World Cup may be the most unpredictable cup competition in world football (unless you’re an octopus named Paul), these articles will hopefully work as an analytical guide so that you can look like a football aficionado in front of your mates. Thank us later.
2018 FIFA World Cup: Group A
The teams: Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay
The first group on the cards at this years World Cup is Group A – the hosts’ domain. Whilst perhaps one of the least exciting groups at the tournament, Russia will be looking to claim some scalps in front of a roaring home crowd. Their opposition, on the other hand, will be looking to spoil the ‘vecherinka’ (party) with some intimidating individuals such as Mohamed Salah, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani eager to prove themselves on the grandest footballing stage of them all.
Odds to win the competition – 40/1 (Sky Bet)
Method of qualification – Hosts
With Russia’s qualifying being completed exclusively by men in suits, the squad hasn’t had much preparation on the pitch for their native World Cup and have been desperate for sparring partners – even going as far as organising a hybrid-friendly against Russian football club Dynamo Moscow. With the make-up of the squad changing rather considerably for Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad since Euro 2016 – target man Arten Dzyuba being a rather significant omission – Russia could be somewhat of a surprise package ahead of this summer’s tournament.
Captain and veteran shot-stopper Igor Akinfeev is certainly Russia’s stalwart for the competition and has already proven himself as a formidable goalkeeper on considerable footballing stages before, consistently performing in the Champions League for CSKA Moscow throughout his career. Despite this, Russia aren’t known for their defensive capabilities and Cherchesov’s back three in his flat 3-5-2 formation has already been altered with the retirement of defenders Sergei Ignashevich and brothers Vasili and Alexei Berezutski – a real spanner in the works for Russia who will now be more reliant on the centre midfielders to play quite a substantial part defensively to protect Akinfeev from a barrage of shots. Going forward, Real Madrid youth product Denis Cheryshev can be lethal on the wing and Russia will be increasingly reliant on him to produce chances in a rather lacklustre squad. Alan Dzagoev is also considered to be a creative force in Russia’s midfield but is notoriously prone to injuries, with this in mind, any knocks he picks up at the tournament could prove to be a huge blow to the hosts’ chances.
Odds to win the competition – 250/1 (Sky Bet)
Method of qualification – CAF Third Round Group E Winners
After not qualifying for a World Cup since 1990 and consistently being agonisingly close, the Pharaohs rose from the ashes and produced an outstanding qualifying campaign this time around to secure their place in Russia. The ‘Egyptian King’ Mohamed Salah has been the driving force in the national side and played a key part in the mass majority of Egypt’s qualifying goals – including a goal four minutes into stoppage time to beat Congo 2-1 and gain World Cup qualification – and will be of utmost importance in helping the Pharaohs to progress further than the group stage. Despite his injury which was sustained in the Champions League Final, Salah has promised his country he will be fit for the start of the tournament which is a relief to the Egyptian following.
Argentine manager Hector Cuper sets up Egypt in a 4-2-3-1 for most games with Salah initially starting as a winger but moving all over the pitch; essentially carrying the team’s attack as the country’s talisman. Speaking to Egyptian natives and supporters ahead of the World Cup, passionate supporter Ahmed Arafat told 90MAAT about the quality in the Egyptian squad and hailed Egyptian centreback Ahmed Fathi as “the best defender in Africa”. “He plays in the Egyptian league, but he is phenomenal,” Ahmed told us, and Fathi is in good company with notable faces alongside him such as Ahmed Hegazi and El Mohamady; two defenders familiar with English football. Furthermore, experienced winger Shikabala has returned to the national side after a three-year absence and is known for being extremely skillful and creative on the flanks, providing more attacking support for Salah. Another notable name in Egypt’s squad is goalkeeper Essam El Hadary who, at age 45, could become the oldest player to ever play at the World Cup if he makes an appearance at the tournament. Whilst perhaps not the most talented squad on display this summer, the adept individuals at their disposal combined with their somewhat mediocre opponents in the group could create prime circumstances for Egypt to surprise many World Cup punters.
Odds to win the competition – 2000/1 (Sky Bet)
Method of qualification – AFC Third Round Group B Runners-Up
Twelve years after their last World Cup appearance in Germany, Saudi Arabia were formidable in Asian qualifying for Russia and surprised many with the quality of their game. Their coach; Juan Antonio Pizzi, led Chile to Copa America glory in 2016 and is a massive coup for the Saudi Arabians whose team are arguably playing their best football for a long time.
Setting up in a 4-1-4-1, the squad is littered with most of the Saudi League’s footballing stars. Pizzi has got the Eagles playing fast attacking football; utilising the pace they have on the flanks and benefiting from their unique style of play. The mass of goals in qualifying for Saudi Arabia came from inside the area with their attack pushing the opposition’s defence back in order to create chances – however, ambitious and largely unsuccessful efforts from outside the area were commonplace if players struggled to create decent chances. The Eagles did show their passing ability in qualifying, with attractive link up play leading to a number of goals, but whether they can reproduce that against higher quality opponents remains to be seen. On the other side of the field, the Saudi defence shipped quite a few goals in qualifying – especially from set pieces where they looked exceptionally weak – and that could potentially prove to be their downfall.
Whilst there aren’t many recognisable names in the Eagles’ squad for mainstream football fans, the likes of Nawaf Al Abed in midfield has the ability to both score as well as create chances for the abundant Saudi attack. Fahad Al Muwallad was the country’s talisman in qualifying – scoring the goal to send Saudi Arabia to the World Cup in the first place – and he can be exciting on the wing. If Saudi Arabia are going to produce anything at this tournament, one would imagine that it will be at the hands – or, more aptly, feet – of Al Muwallad. Yet to progress from the group is a substantial task for the Green Falcons.
Odds to win the competition – 28/1 (Sky Bet)
Method of qualification – CONMEBOL Round Robin Runners-Up
Whilst the potency of Uruguay’s attack is world renowned with utterly clinical strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, the argument at hand is whether the World Cup squad will be as reliant on their prolific forwards as they were in qualifying. Cavani, who finished as the country’s top goalscorer in qualifying, and Suarez; stated by many as the best player Uruguay has ever possessed, seemingly carried the country to Russia and, with the lack of quality elsewhere in the squad, may have to reproduce the same performances at this summer’s tournament.
70-year-old Oscar Tabarez is at the helm of this Uruguayan squad and he will surely be looking to go out with a bang on what will surely be his last ever coaching job. Tabarez sets up his team in a flat 4-4-2 formation with the two star front men leading the line and notable players in Fernando Muslera between the sticks and captain Diego Godin organising the defensive line. Whilst Muslera has been hailed by many as a well-respected and talented goalkeeper during his time for Galatasaray, some questions have been asked about Godin who, whilst a vital figure in defence, has been criticised along with Sebastian Coates for being too slow, resulting in Uruguay being caught out on the counter attack numerous times – a flaw that players like Salah will be eager to exploit. Besides a handful of notable names, Uruguay really lack the overall quality for a country with high aims, especially with the real lack of creative spark and service in midfield to supply Suarez and Cavani.
Additionally, there is always the possibility with Luis Suarez to pick up a suspension for some erratic antics, as has been the case the last two World Cups. Suarez will be chomping at the bit (pun fully intended) to perform on the world stage again for his country but, with Uruguay so reliant on the prowess of Suarez, seeing him dismissed once again for ‘over-eagerness’ would prove to be disastrous for the country’s chances in the competition. Whilst the Uruguayan side do possess individuals that are commonly branded as world class, the lack of overall quality surrounding these individuals will most likely hinder their chances of making it far.
Despite being rather negative about Uruguay, I believe the squad has the quality individuals to top a rather uninspiring group but I imagine they may struggle against quality opposition in the knockout stages. Egyptians are resoundingly confident that they will make it out the group stages and, with Mohamed Salah spearheading the Pharaohs’ World Cup campaign, the Egyptian squad have the capabilities to do them proud and edge into the knockout stages. Egypt are still looking for their first ever World Cup victory and it seems like they should achieve that with relative ease. Whilst Saudi Arabia do seem to have a promising attack, their defensive capabilities are somewhat minimal and the quality in both the Egyptian and Uruguayan squad should penetrate the Saudi back line with little effort. In a bold statement, I believe Russia will be embarrassed in front of their native spectators, as well as the world who will be watching. The lack of preparation, defensive structure and overall quality will hinder the Russian performances and, unless they are truly spurred on by an overwhelming Russian crowd, I can’t see them escaping their group even with the lacklustre opponents. Football can be a cruel game sometimes, but would it be called the beautiful game if grown Russian men aren’t crying after being beaten 2-1 by Saudi Arabia on their home turf? I don’t think it would.
Written by Harry Robinson.