We begin our 2018 World Cup previews with Group A, where tournament host Russia is situated in what, on paper, looks like the easiest group. Uruguay is the only country in the group that has advanced deep into a World Cup in the last 30 years, Egypt has the mercurial Mo Salah, but his status is now in doubt, and Saudi Arabia will hope to surprise but are extreme long shots.
Other Group Previews:
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mo Salah took the EPL by storm, and was named as the Premier League Player of the Year and won the Golden Boot by scoring 32 goals this season for Liverpool. He is one of the most fun players to watch and is a constant danger on quick strike counterattacks and in creating half-chances.
Salah left the Champions League final with a shoulder injury after being taken down by Sergio Ramos, and his recovery time could be 3-4 weeks until fully fit, but the first World Cup match is two weeks away. People in Egypt seem to be taking it well, with one lawyer filing a lawsuit seeking a billion dollars from Sergio Ramos for his infliction of emotional distress on the country.
Luis Suarez, now playing professionally with Barcelona, has a long history of heroics and controversy in the World Cup. In 2010, he scored the winning goal against Mexico in group play, scored two goals in the Round of 16 against South Korea, and then made a key save late against Ghana. Suarez was red carded for intentionally handling a ball that was otherwise going in in extra time, and Ghana missed the PK. He missed the semifinal (the farthest Uruguay has advanced since 1970) as a result.
In the 2014 World Cup, Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini late in a match, was not disciplined in the game, and Uruguay won to advance. Suarez was then suspended for the bite (his third such incident, two of which happened in professional matches in the previous three years) for nine international matches.
While he may not have the public renown or notoriety of teammate and fellow forward Suarez, Edinson Cavani has been a big part of recent Uruguay success. He also played on the 2010 and 2014 World Cup squads, currently stars for Paris St. Germain, and led Uruguay with 10 goals in qualifying for this World Cup.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 10 (7 as USSR, 3 since 1994 as Russia)
Best Finishes: Semifinals in 1966; Quarterfinals in 1958, 1962, 1970 (all as U.S.S.R.)
FIFA World Rank: 65
Russia qualified as the host nation, but they have not had much high-level success since the breakup of the Soviet Union. They’ve successfully qualified for the World Cup or European Championship in 8 of 12 cycles since 1994, but have only advanced out of the group stage once, when they reached the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships before losing to eventual champion Spain. In fact, you have to go back to the 1986 World Cup to the last time, as the Soviet Union, they played in a knockout game in a World Cup. Advancing out of the group stage, though, has to be the expectation at home, especially with the very favorable draw they received.
It’s a side with very few players who play outside of the Russian professional leagues, and compete on the biggest stages. Only three of the players on the extended World Cup squad play professionally outside Russia. The team will be lead by veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, midfielder Alan Dzagoev, and forward Fyodor Smolov.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 4
Best Finish: Round of 16 in 1994
FIFA World Rank: 63
Saudi Arabia were surprise darlings in their World Cup debut in 1994, advancing out of a group that also included Belgium and the Netherlands. Since then, though, they have not won a World Cup match in three tries, and failed to qualify for the previous two World Cups.
They enter this tourney as rank outsiders again. Virtually the entire squad plays professionally in Saudi Arabia. Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is the leading scorer for the national team with 28 goals in 38 appearances.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 2
Best Finish: Group Stage in 1990
FIFA World Rank: 30
“The Pharaohs” don’t have much World Cup history, appearing only once in the Finals since World War II, and never winning a match, but they have won 7 African Cup of Nations titles and lost in the most recent final to Cameroon.
If Egypt advances, it’s because they have one of the most mercurial footballers on the planet, Mo Saleh, leading the way. Saleh was recently selected as the EPL Player of the Year and led Liverpool to the Champions League Final.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 12
Best Finishes: Champions in 1930, 1950; Semifinalists in 1970, 2010
FIFA World Rank: 17
Uruguay are the clear favorites in Group A. They’ve got plenty of bite up front, led by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. The backline is loaded with veterans including captain Diego Godin of Atletico Madrid, Maxi Pereira of Porto, and Martin Caceres of Lazio. It’s a team full of veterans who have accomplished a lot on the world stage but are now crossing age 30, as Uruguay advanced to the World Cup semis in 2010 and won the Copa America the next year with many players in this core. We’ll see if they can mount one more run.
June 14- Russia vs. Saudi Arabia (Moscow), 11 am ET/8 am PT
June 15- Uruguay vs. Egypt (Yekaterinburg), 8 am ET/5 am PT
June 19- Russia vs. Egypt (St. Petersburg), 2 pm ET/11 am PT
June 20- Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia (Rostov-on-Don), 11 am ET/8 am PT
June 25- Russia vs. Uruguay (Samara), 10 am ET/7 am PT
June 25- Egypt vs. Saudi Arabia (Volgograd), 10 am ET/7 am PT
ALL ODDS TO WIN GROUP VIA ODDSCHECKER (PERCENTAGE CHANCE TO ADVANCE IN PARENTHESES)
URUGUAY 9/10 (80%)
RUSSIA 9/5 (74%)
EGYPT 15/2 (35%)
SAUDI ARABIA 50/1 (9%)