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Russia

It could be worse, Russian football fans. You could be Qataris.

In fairness to a Russian side expected to struggle on home soil, the past few tournaments haven’t quite been as dire as the critics would have you believe. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev clearly had a green laser shone into his eyes before he came and missed a cross that allowed Islam Slimani to equalise for Algeria and knock Russia out of the tournament.

And while the Russians were disappointing at Euro 2016 – collecting a solitary point from a draw against England that was marred by crowd violence in the stands – there’s a reasonable chance Russia might escape the same fate at the first World Cup hosted in Eastern Europe and avoid becoming just the second host nation since South Africa to fail to get out of the group stage.

That’s because they’ve been drawn in what looks like, on paper at least, the easiest group. Pitted against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay, Russian fans might reasonably assume their team is in with a decent chance of reaching the Round of 16. Much will depend on the form of Akinfeev. Russia’s long-time skipper and talisman, the vastly experienced goalkeeper is still only 32. Yet Akinfeev has a habit of making big mistakes at major tournaments, and Russia can ill-afford their long-standing custodian to crack under pressure on the biggest stage of all.

Further up the park, coach Stanislav Cherchesov is likely to rely on the wily craft of veterans like Yuri Zhirkov, Denis Glushakov and Sergei Ignashevich – the latter of whom has come out of retirement for the finals – to steer them around the park. Alan Dzagoev should provide some much-needed creative spark, while beanpole striker Fyodor Smolov looks likely to be charged with the task of scoring the goals – although in truth they’ve been in short supply for a Russian side desperate to avoid embarrassment on home soil.

And that, in the end, may the best that Russia can hope for. That could all change should they win their opening game against Saudi Arabia, but if the past few tournaments are anything to go, it tends to be a case of ‘rocks and diamonds’ as far as the enigmatic Russia are concerned. 

Head coach: Stanislav Cherchesov

Key player: Igor Akinfeev (pictured)

One to watch: Denis Cheryshev

Saudi Arabia

Damage limitation? Saudi fans will hope for much more than that from a team making its first World Cup finals appearance since 2006, but after watching their side crash to a 3-0 defeat to Peru in a pre-tournament friendly, the alarm bells are ringing for coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side.

In truth they were ringing when Bert van Marwijk walked out on the Green Falcons shortly after qualification. The taciturn Dutchman claimed there was too much “interference” and sensationally quit as national team coach, prompting the Saudi federation to turn to Argentine Edgardo Bauza as the man to lead them to Russia. He was sacked barely two months later, so Argentine-born, ex-Spain international and one-time Chile coach Pizzi is now charged with the gargantuan task of getting the Green Falcons out of the group.

And the Saudis’ best hope may lay in the fact they’re in a relatively easy group. The clash with fellow Arabic nation Egypt will be hotly anticipated – the two sides were in talks to play a pre-tournament friendly before being drawn in the same group – but by then the Saudis will hope they’re still mathematically in contention to progress. 

The Saudis have left the mercurial talents of Nawaf Al-Abed out of their squad, with Pizzi deciding the Al-Hilal playmaker had not received enough playing time in the domestic league after only recently returned from groin surgery. The absence of a key creative spark means the Saudis are likely to play plenty of men behind the ball, suggesting goals could be in short supply – with veteran Al-Nassr striker Mohammed Al-Sahlwai expected to shoulder much of the load.

Since making their tournament debut in 1994, Saudi Arabia’s tournament record is poor. There was that disastrous 8-0 defeat to Germany in Sapporo in 2002, and their best result four years later was an opening 2-2 draw with Tunisia. Much more should be expected from a Saudi side which is – historically speaking – one of Asian football’s most successful sides. But the glory days of twenty years ago look a long way off in the rear-view mirror, and unless Pizzi can spark something of a revival, it may be a case of damage limitation after all for the Green Falcons.

Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi

Key player: Taiseer Al-Jassam (pictured)

One to watch: Abdullah Otayf     

Egypt

Is Mohamed Salah the best player on the planet right now? Correction: could a doctor be responsible for Egypt’s best chance of escaping the group stage in Russia?

Liverpool fans weren’t the only ones to wail a collective cry of anguish over the UEFA Champions League final. When Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos wrenched Salah to the turf – badly injuring the Egyptian star’s shoulder in the process – he inflamed the fears of Pharaohs fans everywhere.

Such was the outcry over Ramos’ cynical foul, an Egyptian lawyer has gone so far as to try and sue the Spanish international. Salah is that kind of player. And while it wouldn’t be fair to pin the Pharaohs hopes solely on one individual, it’s fair to say Egypt hasn’t had a star quite like this since Mohamed Aboutrika – and even he pales into insignificance compared to the incandescent Salah. 

Such is Salah’s importance to the team, he’s now Egypt’s fourth all-time top scorer – despite the fact he’s only played 57 games. But outside of Salah, there is a smattering of familiar names. Ali Gabr, Ahmed El Mohamady, Ahmed Hegazi, Sam Morsy, Ramadan Sobhi and Mohamed El Neny all ply their trade in English football, and Arsenal man El Neny is perhaps the next biggest name to Salah.

Goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary looks set to be the oldest player to feature at a World Cup finals – breaking Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon’s record – with the 45-year-old named in Egypt’s preliminary squad. He was in goal when Salah slotted home the penalty to take the Pharaohs to Russia after a 28-year absence. 

Lanky striker Kouka is practically the antithesis of Salah, while French football lovers will notice a familiar name in the wonderfully monikered Trézéguet. But in truth, Egyptian football right now is all about Salah. Which is why an entire nation will be sweating on his fitness.

Can a doctor get Salah’s shoulder right before the Pharaohs run out for their opening game against Uruguay in Ekaterinburg? Egypt holds its collective breath.

Head coach: Héctor Cúper

Key player: Mohamed Salah (pictured)

One to watch: Ramadan Sobhi

Uruguay

Whisper it quietly, but could Uruguay be dark horses to go deep into the tournament? 

They’ve done it once before, embarking on a memorable run to the semi-finals in 2010 that only ended with a narrow defeat to the Netherlands. And in Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, they boast a couple of the world’s most prolific strikers.

Suárez, of course, has traditionally been Uruguay’s main man. He’s also been a constant source of controversy – and he missed that semi-final in 2010 after being sent off for a handball against Ghana that ultimately cost the African nation the game. He’s also been in and out of Uruguay’s starting side in recent years, and he only scored five goals in South American qualifying – including two in the final round after Uruguay had already confirmed their place in Russia.

Instead, it was prolific Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani who lead the way for the Uruguayans, and the man known as El Matador is shaping up as the key player for Óscar Tabárez’s team. Cavani rattled home 10 goals in qualifying – including a key winner against Peru – as La Celeste finished second in the group behind a rampant Brazil. Both Suárez and Cavani got on the scoresheet in a 2-2 with the Brazilians in Recife, but the Seleção exacted revenge with a thumping 4-1 return win in Montevideo.

And it’s that inconsistency that Uruguayan fans will fear going into the World Cup. They’ve got a solid spine – goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, skipper, central defender and captain Diego Godin and veteran midfielder Cristian Rodríguez see to that, and in youngsters like Rodrigo Bentancur, Federico Valverde and Maxi Gómez, they’ve got some exciting young talent coming through. 

It’s how Tabárez – who has been at the helm since 2006 – manages to get his team firing that could make all the difference in Russia. Uruguay have been handed a plum draw. Are they good enough to make the most of it?

Coach: Óscar Tabárez

Key player: Edinson Cavani (pictured)

One to watch: Matías Vecino


Categories: Analysis | World Cup

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