World Cup 2018

World Cup preview: Kop heroes past and present can light up Group A

 • by Matt Gault
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We have been blessed with some excellent Group As in recent World Cups. In 2014, hosts Brazil opened the tournament against a creative, slightly unpredictable and ultimately underwhelming Croatia side.

In 2010, Uruguay and Mexico progressed from Group A as hosts South Africa and France crashed out, the latter having imploded in spectacular fashion four years after reaching the final.

2006 in Germany at least gave us an opening game to remember, as Die Mannschaft beat a spirited Costa Rica 4-2 despite Paulo Wanchope’s best efforts.

 

Unfortunately, we’d be lying to you if we told you to expect fireworks in Group A’s opener this time around as Russia v Saudi Arabia is as unappealing as curtain-raisers get.

However, with a Mohamed Salah-led Egypt and Uruguay making up the four, there are at least a few reasons to tune into the hosts’ group this summer.

Here, we preview Group A, giving you the lowdown on each team before predicting how we believe the final standings will look.

Russia

Russia’s best finish at a World Cup was reaching the quarter-finals back in 1970. By all accounts, this current crop won’t get near that stage. Despite the odd sprinkling of talent through the squad, the prospects for Stanislav Cherchesov’s men are overwhelmingly bleak.

Had they been handed more favourable opponents in the group stage, we wouldn’t yet be writing their World Cup obituary. Upsets are pretty much guaranteed at each tournament and but we’re not expecting Russia to experience many home comforts here.

The hopes of the nation lie almost entirely on the creative ingenuity of Aleksandr Golovin, the finishing touch of Fyodor Smolov and the shot-stopping powers of Igor Akinfeev. Beyond that, there is not much about this Russian side and it is particularly startling that 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich, who looked frighteningly off the pace at Euro 2016, has made the squad.

At 70th, Russia are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.

Key stats

Because they didn’t have to go through qualifying, Russia lack competitive football. They play like it too, having failed to win in their last seven games, conceding 13 goals during that spell.

Key player

Golovin will supply most of the creative energy going forward. The CSKA Moscow playmaker enjoyed a stellar campaign with his club and has been the subject of Manchester United transfer rumours in recent weeks.

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Saudi Arabia

Free from the intense pressure and media glare of hosting the tournament, Saudi Arabia can approach the World Cup just happy to have made it one piece. Yes, despite a relatively comfortable experience on the pitch in qualifying, the Saudis’ preparations have been bedeviled by turmoil on the touchline.

Bert van Marwijk, now coaching Australia, left just days after securing qualification having failed to agree on a new contract. He was replaced by Edgardo Bauza, who lasted two months.

The Saudi Arabian FA then turned to Juan Antonio Pizzi, the former Spain international who led Chile to the Copa América title in 2016. Appointed in November 2017, Pizzi has won three, lost five and drawn one of his nine games – hardly a record to inspire much confidence.

However, they did get the better of Australia during qualification and, in Mohammad al-Sahlawi, they have a striker who knows how to find the back of the net, boasting an international record of 28 goals in 36 games.

Key stats

One of the most striking stats is al-Sahlawi’s haul of 16 goals in qualifying. The 31-year-old will hope that a recent three-week training stint at Manchester United has sharpened him up before Russia.

Key player

Al-Sahlawi again, because he is most likely to score a goal. However, 34-year-old goalkeeper Yasser al-Mosailem is expected to face a bombardment of shots, particularly from Egypt and Uruguay, so he will also be key to the Saudis’ chances.

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Egypt

Egypt arrive in Russia in relatively high spirits – and so they should. Salah, the country’s talisman and most high-profile player, has just enjoyed a remarkable first season at Liverpool, scoring 44 goals in 52 games.

The Pharaohs will also expect to advance from one of the weakest groups in the tournament, but have enough solid and dependable players in their line-up to frustrate – or perhaps shock – Uruguay and finish top.

Recent games have not filled fans with confidence, however, being held by Kuwait and Portugal before receiving a 3-0 thumping much-fancied Belgium.

In fact, Egypt have not won since beating Congo in October but Héctor Cúper, 62, is one of the most experienced managers at the tournament, having started his coaching career 25 years ago, leading Valencia to consecutive Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001.

While much, unsurprisingly, will depend on the form and fitness of Salah, Egypt stand a good chance of reaching the last-16 for the first time in their history.

Key stats

Salah was the top-scorer during the CAF qualifying round with five goals, averaging 3.8 scoring attempts per 90 and 6.4 touches in the opposition’s box, highlighting him as one of the most dangerous attacking players in Africa.

Salah plays a similar role in Cúper’s 4-3-3 to his deployment in Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side and the 25-year-old will be hoping to have a similarly decisive impact on results.

Key player

In case you hadn’t already gathered, it’s Salah. Egypt have other talented players, of course, with Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ Hassan ready to show why Premier League clubs have been interested in him. Ramadan Sobhi, a bit-player at Stoke City last season, can also produce spectacular moments in attack.

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Uruguay

Considered the World Cup’s ultimate overachievers, Uruguay clinched the trophy in 1930, 1950 and reached the semi-finals in 2010, all despite having a population about the third of London’s.

The South Americans are expected to top Group A, with their talented squad spearheaded by a devastating duo of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in attack.

Their form in qualifying was mixed, overcoming a sticky patch halfway through to eventually finish second behind Brazil.

Managed by septuagenarian Óscar Tábarez, twelve years into his second spell in charge, Uruguay have trusted warriors in Diego Godín, Martín Cáceres, Cavani and Suárez as well as a crop of exciting youngsters including Rodrigo Bentancur, Arsenal transfer target Lucas Torreira and Maxi Gómez.

Expect them to qualify from Group A comfortably.

Key stats

Uruguay’s tenacity shone through in qualifying. They averaged more interceptions per game than any other South American nation with 16.55.

Cavani, too, deserves a mention, with ten goals during the qualifying campaign – twice as many as Suárez. Cavani had the third-best goals per 90 ratio with 0.67, behind Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus and Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

Key player

He may be the wrong side of 30 these days but Suárez remains the most influential figure for Uruguay, closely followed by captain Godín. Although Cavani notched more goals in qualifying, Suárez has proven that he steps up in the big games, either with his country, Liverpool or at Barcelona.

The important thing, judging by previous World Cup appearances, will be keeping his emotions in check.

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Standout fixture

Egypt v Uruguay, by some distance. The two will lock horns at the Ekateringburg Arena on Friday afternoon at 1pm UK time, which is obviously a result as you’ll be able to tune in on your lunch hour if you’re stuck in work.

Egypt and Uruguay have never played each other but much of the pre-amble will, perhaps understandably, focus on Salah v Suárez in the battle of the Kop heroes past and present.

Both sides will be confident of seeing off Russia and Saudi Arabia in their remaining two games, so don’t be surprised if this turns out to be a cagey draw.

Prediction

  1. Uruguay
  2. Egypt
  3. Russia
  4. Saudi Arabia

If it finishes up as predicted, Uruguay will probably face Spain or Portugal as the runners-up of Group B. Either one of those games has blockbuster appeal.

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