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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

World Cup Group A guide: Hosts Russia under pressure to reach last 16, will Salah be fit for Egypt?

Ian Hawkey provides everying you need to know about the four nations that make up Group A of the June 14-July 15 tournament

RUSSIA

Qualified: As hosts, after a controversial vote after which England, who lost out, protested about secretive deal-making – and worse – among the Fifa executives.

Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov. The third different man in charge since the disappointing 2014 tournament, when Fabio Capello underwhelmed. Leonid Slutsky managed Russia to another group stage elimination at Euro 2016 and Cherchesov, a former Russia international goalkeeper, oversaw a similar exit at last year’s Confederations Cup.

Player to watch: Igor Akinfeev. Hugely experienced, the 32-year-old goalkeeper and captain has over 100 caps, and was part of the CSKA Moscow side who won the Uefa Cup back in 2005. Reached a slightly less desirable landmark in the Uefa Champions League this season when he kept a clean sheet for CSKA against Benfica – his first shut-out in the competition in 11 years, and 43 games.

Talking Points: How will they bear the pressure?

Russia, rated outside the world’s top 60 by Fifa, know home support is a crucial ally, and that, in a relatively lightweight Group A, they are expected to fill one of the top two places. From the Kremlin to the Crimea, nobody wants them to become only the second hosts to drop out at the first hurdle, but many Russians fear a brittle, uninspiring team could be.

Prediction: Russia to win their first match and then add enough points to get into the last 16, which looks like their ceiling given the pedigree of their possible opponents – perhaps Spain, maybe Portugal – once into the knockouts. Signs of nervousness are to be expected so they may not show too many flourishes. The tournament should advance a few individual careers, though, and this is an opportunity for the likes of the Miranchuk brothers, Aleksei and Anton, and the midfielder Alex Golovin to make names for themselves.

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Uruguay's national team manager Oscar Washington Tabarez speaks with his players during a training session. Miguel Rojo / AFP
Uruguay's national team manager Oscar Washington Tabarez speaks with his players during a training session. Miguel Rojo / AFP

URUGUAY

Qualified: Finished second in the elongated South American section, well behind Brazil, who soared, but also comfortably above the thicket of nations caught up in the complicated cliffhanger that sorted out third, fourth and fifth places at the 11th hour. That was a relief for Uruguay, who have a habit of reaching World Cups via play-off.

Manager: Oscar Washington Tabarez. The granddad of the managers taking part at the World Cup. Remarkably, Tabarez was first involved with the national team set-up as a coach 35 years ago; he was then Uruguay’s manager back at Italia 1990, when his team lost out to the hosts in the first knockout round. Has also worked in club football in Italy, Spain and Argentina.

Player to Watch: Diego Godin. If anybody epitomises the sheer hardness that is such a proud tradition of Uruguayan football it is Godin. Which is not to say he is reckless - far from it - or dirty, although strikers tend to know they have been in a joust with him. A superb marshall of a defence, strong in the air and in his anticipation, he was commanding for Atletico Madrid in their Europa League triumph in May.

Talking Point: Will Luis Suarez finish a World Cup at the same time as his team does?

He’s not got a great record. Sent off for his cynical handball – a much applauded act by many of his countrymen – that denied Ghana a winning goal in the 2010 quarter-final, Suarez was then notoriously caught biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 tournament. His subsequent ban is said to have encouraged him to change his ways. His country would like 100 per cent of him this time, because he remains a superb striker.

Prediction: Uruguay look to have by far the best equipped squad in their group, with genuinely world-class strikers, and amid the abundant experience of senior men, some promising young talents. They will not fold easily, either: Tradition demands that of a country with great pride in their warrior qualities. The quarter-finals will be the minimum expectation and Uruguay are justified in targetting that.

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Liverpool's Mohamed Salah with Sadio Mane and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo as he is substituted after sustaining an injury in the Uefa Champions League final in Kiev on May 26. Phil Noble / Reuters
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah with Sadio Mane and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo as he is substituted after sustaining an injury in the Uefa Champions League final in Kiev on May 26. Phil Noble / Reuters

EGYPT

How they qualified: Topped Group E in the CAF section, ahead of Ghana, Congo and Uganda, marking a return to former glories at the expense of regular World Cup participants, in Ghana, who were at the previous three tournaments. Egypt’s last was back in 1990.

Manager: Hector Cuper. Cuper has long learned to live with the tag of being management’s Nearly Man, the coach who kept finishing second when he was the peak of his club career, as a Champions League runner-up with Valencia and then frustrated at losing out on Serie A titles that seemed within his grasp with Inter Milan. Cagey tactically, but has raised Egypt’s standards.

Player to watch: Mohamed Salah. Who else? The leading scorer in Europe’s top leagues this season, the electric pulse that drove Liverpool to the Champions League final, Salah and all Egypt could have done without the injury uncertainties that his collision with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos in that final have caused. Salah scored the goals that took the Pharoahs to Russia, and he looks like the key to their staying there beyond the group matches.

Talking Points: Salah’s fitness is clearly a concern, and even if he has been given a positive diagnosis come June 15, he will be targeted for heavy challenges and close marking, especially in the opening game versus Uruguay. There will be attention too on the goalkeeper, and if it is to be 45-year-old Essam El-Hadary, a romantic, record-breaking story, his ageing reflexes will be scrutinised closely.

Prediction: Egypt will play cautious football much of the time. That is Cuper’s way, and a counter-attacking style suits the skills-set of their strikers. There will be a temptation to look at the fixture schedule – Uruguay first, Russia second, Saudi Arabia last – and curtail adventure for the first 180 minutes hoping that a win on the final day can secure qualification. That may be a trap. Egypt to finish third in the group.

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Saudi Arabia's football players train ahead of the World Cup. Courtesy Saudi Arabia Football Federation
Saudi Arabia's football players train ahead of the World Cup. Courtesy Saudi Arabia Football Federation

SAUDI ARABIA

How they qualified: Finished runners-up to Japan in Group B in the last stage of Asian qualifying, and six points ahead of UAE, whom the Saudis beat 3-0 at home before losing 2-1 in Abu Dhabi.

Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi. The Argentina-born former Spain international is the second occupant of this very hot seat since Bert van Marwijk oversaw qualification for Russia. He has a distinguished background as a player, with Barcelona among others, and as an international coach. He was in charge of Chile when they won the Copa America two summers ago and was with them in Russia last summer at the Confederations Cup.

Player to Watch: Fahad Al Muwallad. A former prodigy, who made his senior professional debut, for Al Ittihad, while only 16. He was still 16 when he went to the Under 20 World Cup in South America and was on the scoresheet there as Saudi Arabia made the last 16. He is now 23, has lighting speed, some neat dribbling tricks. Pizzi will look to him to get behind opposition defences.

Talking Point: Saudi Arabia, for all the nation's several appearances at World Cups – this their fifth – are not a worldly group of players.

They are all based in the local, lucrative league and seldom gather experience at foreign clubs. So, at the beginning of the year, a solution was proposed: Several Saudi talents had loan spells arranged with clubs in the Spanish first and second divisions, with no financial cost to La Liga outfits involved. Trouble is, they hardly played. So if the likes of Al Muwallad, whose two brief appearances for Levante in May were more than many of the outsourced Saudis managed, look rusty in Moscow, there will be some explaining to do.

Prediction: The likelihood is that Saudi Arabia’s day in the spotlight will be Matchday 1, and then they will retreat to the margins of the festival. Certainly, Russia, the hopeful hosts, seemed relieved when November’s draw gave them the lowest-ranked nation in the hat as their opponents on the opening night. The crowd will be roused, and the Saudis must try to be stimulated by that. They will be under pressure to entertain, too. A massive worldwide audience will be tuning in for the big kick off.

Can they respond? It’s a long shot. And with the duo of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani bearing down on them in the next fixture, and the Middle East derby against Egypt to close the group, the Saudis look clear second-favourites in every match.

Group A Overview

The big imponderable is how much Russia can gain from host status. Neither recent history – they have fallen at the group stage in each of their last four major tournaments – nor any stellar qualities in their squad would argue for their progressing to the last-16 stage by right. But they will have strong support, and provided they emerge with three points from the opening night might just gain enough momentum to finish above Egypt. It looks like a tussle between the Pharaoh and the Bear for one place, with Uruguay the clear favourites to finish top. And the Bear has homeground advantage.

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