2018 FIFA World Cup: Uruguay favourites in weak Group A

New Delhi: The 2018 Fifa World Cup will kick off with hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia on 14 June at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium as part of Group A, which also includes Uruguay and Egypt.

Russia, currently 66th in the official Fifa rankings, will be one of the weakest hosts at a World Cup. Unlike South Africa, so far the only country to have hosted a World Cup without ever qualifying for one, Russia (the erstwhile Soviet Union) have a storied history in international football, having won the inaugural edition of the European Championship in 1960 and finishing fourth at the 1966 World Cup in England.

In recent years, they have struggled with a lack of quality players. Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev is the only Russian international currently playing in a top 5 European league. A majority of their squad will comprise home-based players, which will be an advantage playing in Russia, but that will be outweighed by the lack of experience in other football cultures.

Long-term injuries are likely to rule out key players Georgi Dzhikiya, Viktor Vasin and Aleksandr Kokorin, a huge blow for manager Stanislav Cherchesov. Reaching the last 16 could be counted as success for the hosts.

Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev is the only Russian international currently playing in a top 5 European league. Photo: Action Images

Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev is the only Russian international currently playing in a top 5 European league. Photo: Action Images

Uruguay are the overwhelming favourites to top the group. The two-time world cup winners have a strong defensive spine, with the Atlético Madrid centre-back pairing of Diego Godin and José María Giménez, and Fernando Muslera in goal. Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez are a potent duo up front.

Uruguay also have talented youngsters in Sampdoria’s Lucas Torreira, Celta Vigo’s Maxi Gómez and Juventus’ Rodrigo Bentancur. Maxi Pereira, Cristian Rodríguez and Cristhian Stuani have a wealth of experience as part of the national team.

Óscar Tabárez, in his second stint with Uruguay, has been at the helm since 2006 and has overseen two world cups and four Copa America campaigns. The 71-year-old’s experience, combined with his work with the Uruguayan youth set-up, make him ideal to guide La Celeste.

Uruguayans take pride in their gritty performances in the face of adversity, and its combination with South American flair always make them difficult opponents. They might not go all the way but stopping them from topping Group A will take some doing.

Egypt are likely to follow Uruguay to the round of 16. It is only the third time that the Egyptians will be playing at a world cup, though they have come agonizingly close to qualifying in recent years. They are the most successful team in the African confederation, having won the Africa Cup of Nations seven times, but continental domination hasn’t always translated to world cup qualification.

It took the inspiring performances of Mohamed Salah to guide the Pharaohs to the world cup for the first time since 1990. The Liverpool forward, who has set the English top flight on fire with 30 Premier League goals so far, finished the qualifying campaign with five strikes. The most significant of them was the 94th-minute penalty against the Republic of the Congo in the penultimate qualifying game that sealed Egypt’s place in Russia.

Egypt have quality in other areas of the pitch as well, with Mohamed Elneny, Ramadan Sobhi, Ahmed Hegazi and Ahmed Elmohamady all playing in the English league. They will be managed by the vastly experienced Hector Cuper. At 45, Egypt captain and goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary will be the oldest to play in a world cup.

Mohamed Salah’s 94th-minute penalty against the Republic of the Congo in the penultimate qualifying game sealed Egypt’s place in Russia. Photo: AFP

Mohamed Salah’s 94th-minute penalty against the Republic of the Congo in the penultimate qualifying game sealed Egypt’s place in Russia. Photo: AFP

In a strange decision, the Saudi football federation sent some of its top players on loan to Spanish outfits in January. Three players—Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad—went to La Liga clubs while six went to the lower leagues, on the understanding that the Saudi federation would be paying their salaries.

The idea was to give players the experience of a top European league, but the Saudi federation perhaps forgot to factor in the crucial ingredient of playing time. None of the loaned players is anywhere close to making a first-team appearance.

The fact that Sporting Gijón couldn’t tell the difference between the player they signed—Abdullah al-Hamdan—and the club he came from—Al-Shabab—while announcing his arrival is instructive of the nature of the deal.

In their fifth World Cup appearance, and the first since 2006, Saudi Arabia’s main focus will be to avoid drubbings—and the wooden spoon in the group.livemint