World Cup is finally here.
In the regional qualifiers, we witnessed Netherlands and Italy’s shocking early exit, Iceland’s impressive campaign, and Argentina’s last minute redemption. Now we’re about to reach the climax of the battle royale. Are the Germans going to finally win it in Russia? Are the Brazilians ready enough to reclaim the ultimate glory? Or are we going to see a Cinderella fairytale, a dark horse to win it out of nowhere?
In this preview series I will go through the 32 teams that will participate in the tournament, analyze the overall quality of the squads, and give you my own predictions of every group stage games.
Today we’re going to take a look at teams in Group A. In group A we have the host Russia, Egypt Saudi Arabia and Uruguay.
The Russians probably didn’t enjoy their last World Cup run that much. They were eliminated in a fairly easy group stage back in 2014. Now they are back in the tournament again as host, but their group this time is much harder. If Russia want to make it out of the group stage, they have to win against Saudi Arabia, and try their best to get points from Uruguay and Egypt.
Because Russia didn’t participate in European Qualifiers, so it is really hard to estimate how they’re going to perform on a highly competitive level. Base on Russia’s performances in friendly’s it is evident that they have a fairly good midfield led by Alan Dzagoev and Denis Cheryshev, but a relatively weaker defense. if they manage to build up good connections between Dzagoev and their striker Smolov, they can pressure their opponent’s backline pretty well, but personally I don’t believe it is going to happen. Smolov is a decent player and is the key player in this Russia team, but only few teammates matches his caliber. And, to be honest, Smolov still has a long way to go to become a top tier player, which means that Russia have a lot of tactical work to do on a game-to-game basis in order to make up for their lack of talent.
I expect Russia to play 4-5-1 or 3-5-1-1 with 2 defensive midfielders. They have to outnumber opponent’s attacking force because they don’t really have good defense. Poor positioning when dealing with crosses and through passes, poor 1-on-1 defending, lack of ball-playing center backs, you name them. Their goalkeeper Akinfeev will definitely be super busy on the pitch. But as I previously mentioned, their frontline is capable of creating opportunities. If they play 4-5-1, their 45 crosses into the box in counter attacks can be deadly.
Of all 32 teams in the World Cup, I believe that Russia is slightly below average, maybe average at the very best. However, they have the home field advantage, they have less pressure, and they are definitely better prepared than other teams. I don’t think they are going to qualify; I think they’re going to lose to Egypt in their second game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually make it to the knock-out round.
Base on Egypt’s performance in African Qualifiers, it is evident that they have what it takes to go further in the World Cup. Personally I believe that Egypt is the best team in Africa at this moment, because they’ve developed consistency, and they have the incredible Salah.
We just can’t talk about this Egypt team without talking about Mohamed Salah. People are comparing Salah to Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi these days. He just enjoyed a record-breaking season with Liverpool, scoring 32 goals in 36 appearances in the Premier League, which helped Liverpool secure a top 4 finish; his performance in the Champions League is phenomenal as well: he scored 11 goals in 15 appearances, carrying his team to a Champions League final. Salah’s breakout season is an unequivocal proof that he has the potential to be one of the biggest stars in world football in the near future, but to be fair, it is still too early to say that he is ready to win a Ballon d’Or, or to say that he is already the third best player in the world. He needs significant team achievements to testify his amazing talent. This summer, however, would be a great opportunity for him to make a statement. If he can do more than what Ryan Giggs did for Wales, or what Dwight Yorke did for Trinidad and Tobago, Mohamed Salah will be a Ballon d’Or winner in the near future.
Egypt is highly likely to stick with the balanced 4-2-3-1 formation they used in their 0-3 friendly defeat against Belgium. If Salah is healthy enough to play in the group stage then Egypt’s right wing will be very scary. Their opponent’s left back will definitely try to force Salah to go the outer route, as his crosses would cause fewer problems than his cut-ins. Salah is also good at beating offside traps and converting low crosses and through passes into goals, so although Egypt’s attacking force is more like a one-man show, it is not going to be monotonic, or predictable. Egypt’s defense, however, relies heavily on Elneny’s performance. Arsenal fans definitely have a lot to say about Elneny and his inconsistency. If he is having a good game he would look like Patrick Vieira. Otherwise he would just look like, you know, Elneny. Egypt’s other defenders are definitely hardworking, but it appears that it is not enough to make up for their disadvantages in overall ability, understanding of the game from the tactical aspect, and experience. So I don’t think Egypt can count on their defense to win them games.
I predict that Egypt is going to qualify as A2 and lose in the first knock-out round since their first opponent out of group stage will probably be either Spain or Portugal. (I think Portugal will be B1 and win against Egypt.) It would still be a big achievement for Salah and his boys, but if they lose to Russia and get eliminated in the group stage, they should be considered one of the underachievers in this tournament.
Now we’re talking about one of the worst teams in World Cup 2018. I’m sorry Saudi Arabia, but this is the honest truth. I know that Saudi Arabia ranked higher than Australia in the Asian Qualifiers, I know that they’re always considered one of the best teams coming out of AFC, but this time, Saudi Arabia won’t offer us much to cheer for.
Saudi Arabia’s been playing disciplined and structured football for a long time. Such playing style gave them a very solid leading position in Asia, but sometimes they appear to be overly structured that they would fail to make quick yet specific adjustments to counter their opponent’s particular play style. A typical example would be the 2007 AFC Asian Cup final. They lost to a very mobile Iraq team 0-1. They had players that were with better skills, much more experience and were trained under much better conditions, but they couldn’t deal with Iraq’s quickness and aggressiveness. Although it’s been 11 years, from what I’ve seen in the Asian Qualifiers, it is still the same old story for Saudi Arabia. They’re good when they get to control the tempo of the game, but once their opponent accelerates and starts to press forward with either long passes or quick short passes to the front, they tend to lose their structure in the midfield and are forced to play passively.
They may be strong in Asia, but coming on to a much bigger stage they would no longer have their advantage in player quality. With below-average players and monotonic play style, I really don’t see them winning any game in this group. Actually, the last time Saudi Arabia has won a World Cup game was 24 years ago. It is pretty clear that if they don’t make any changes, that number would at least increase by 4 at the end of the month.
I am not expecting them to change. They’re going to use their 4-5-1 formation in all 3 games. The only unpredictable factor is whether they’re going to play 2 defensive midfielders to form a 4-2-3-1, or 1 defensive midfielder to form a 4-1-4-1. Intuitively they’re going to have a very balanced playing mentality, which will eventually expose their mediocrity. However, I would say they still have a glimmer of hope to win a World Cup game this year, and that is their midfielder Yahya Al Shehri’s creativity. He scored 5 goals in the Asian Qualifiers, and was on loan in Leganes. His passing ability is very good, but it looks like that it is not enough to save his team from being eliminated in the group stage.
I think that Saudi Arabia will be the first team to be eliminated in World Cup 2018. But their attempt to accommodate faster tempo would be an interesting factor for us football fans to watch. (If it actually happens.)
Uruguay is undoubtedly the strongest team in Group A. They confidently qualified from the South America Qualifiers with a 50% win rate. Their striking duo, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, is definitely one of the deadliest striking duos in this tournament. They should qualify to the knockout round easily–they have to qualify to the knockout round easily because their 4th opponent will be either Spain or Portugal, they have to save up some energy for the big battle.
In 2010 South Africa World Cup, Uruguay finished 4th, they were narrowly defeated by the Flying Dutchman in the semi-final, 2-3. Gio van Bronckhorst scored a superb goal in that game. Four days later they lost to Germany with another 2-3 in the third place playoff. In my opinion, that Uruguay team in 2010 was one of the most entertaining team to watch in the 21st century. Forlan-Suarez-Cavani trio can always provide magical moments for fans to savor. Now they don’t have Forlan anymore, Suarez and Cavani are also in their early 30s, their younger players are not ready to take over, it is definitely not going to be easy for them to replicate their impressive run 8 years ago.
In their most recently friendly against Uzbekistan, Uruguay deployed a typical 4-3-1-2 formation, but with the versatility of their young talents in the midfield, it is very hard to predict which formation Uruguay’s going to use each game. Vecino, Bentancur and Torreira are the three rising stars that we need to pay close attention to. Their energy and creativity can definitely provide enough help for Suarez and Cavani. Given 3 fairly easy group stage matchups, I expect Uruguay to score a decent amount of goals. And with top quality defenders such as Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez at the back, it should not be hard for them to win all 3 games in the group stage. If they don’t get complacent, they should easily claim the A1 position. However, I don’t think they’re going to be the dark horse of this tournament. Playing against Spain or Portugal in the first knock-out round is cruel. Uruguay may stand a chance against Portugal, but if they get Spain then that’s pretty much game over. Even if they somehow manage to make it to the quarterfinals, they would be more of a spent force.
Russia 2-0 Saudi Arabia
Uruguay 3-1 Egypt
Russia 0-1 Egypt
Uruguay 3-0 Saudi Arabia
Uruguay 2-0 Russia
Saudi Arabia 0-1 Egypt