Football expert Michael Cox reviews Group A from the World Cup and provides his best tips.
When Russia won the right to host this World Cup back in 2010, it was difficult to imagine they’d be in such a disastrous state heading into the competition itself. After all, Russia reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008, Zenit won the UEFA Cup the same year, and there were a decent number of Russians playing in the Premier League during that period. In 2018, however, this appears the weakest Russian side for decades.
They can, of course, rely upon home advantage. Only once in history - South Africa eight years ago - has the host failed to reach the knockout stages, in part because they’re always seeded and therefore generally avoid the big boys.
There are, however, some decent players in this side. Alan Dzagoev has struggled with injury recently, but breaks forward well from midfield and his CSKA teammate Aleksandr Golovin also offers technical quality.
Russia should be capable of taking the game to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, although will probably play more defensively against Uruguay.
Stanislav Cherchesov is a wily manager who tasted success with Legia Warsaw, but has been hampered by serious injury problems, particularly in defence - to the extent that 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich has been recalled, and could even started as part of Russia’s three-man backline.
That’s Russia’s other trump card: an unusual system. It seems likely to be 3-5-1-1, with lone striker Fyodor Smolov having a big responsibility to bring others into play. As at previous tournaments, Russia’s goals may come from midfielders breaking into the box rather than the centre-forward himself.
It seems likely that only one of Russia or Egypt will qualify from this group, following Uruguay into the second round. That means the crucial game in this group will come on June 19th in Saint Petersburg, between the hosts and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt.
Salah’s fitness is perhaps the main talking point ahead of the World Cup, with good reason - there’s probably no other side in this competition so dependent upon one player.
It seems unthinkable that Salah won’t play here, even if he’s only 50% fit. Ultimately, we’ll only truly know his level of fitness once the games get underway.
You can essentially predict what Egypt are all about having never seen them play, if you know anything about Salah, and anything about manager Hector Cuper. A winger who is outstanding on the counter-attack, and a coach famed for his defensive play.
That’s the order of the day here: sit deep and defend in numbers, then find Salah on the break. His default position is on the right, although could be brought inside into more of a centre-forward position if opponents shut him down with two opponents.
A central role allows him to drift laterally into pockets of space, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t play in the middle at some stage.
Egypt have talent on the opposite flank with the much-hyped Trezeguet, seemingly nicknamed after a physical resemblance to France World Cup winner David, although it’s difficult to see that one.
There’s also passing quality with the trio of Mohamed Elneny, Tarek Hamed and Abdallah Said, meaning Egypt will be capable of controlling games. Whether that suits their attacking qualities, however, is questionable - they’re probably better off springing forward from deep, and will happily spend long periods on the edge of their own box.
This will be particularly crucial in the aforementioned meeting with Russia, who are more likely to dominate play - which might lead to Salah exposing the Russian defence’s lack of speed. Egypt seem better value to progress.
The outsiders for Group A - and possibly the worst team in the competition - are Saudi Arabia, who will prove something of an underwhelming opening act when they face Russia.
On paper this isn’t a bad side, with some decent talents. But the policy of sending the trio of Salem El-Dawsari, Yahya Al-Shehri and Fahad Al-Muwallad, the side’s star player, for loan spells in Spain has backfired spectacularly as they barely completed 90 minutes of action between them. As a result, three key players are badly lacking match sharpness.
There’s also a question mark about Saudi Arabia’s footballing identity, which is hardly surprising considering they’ve had 12 managers from six different nations over the past decade.
Juan Antonio Pizzi is an experienced coach, winning the Copa America with Chile two years ago, but he seems to want Saudi Arabia to play a more positive, open game than they’re accustomed to. It’s highly doubtful that they’ll have the players to compete in midfield against their group stage opponents, and they could be overrun.
Question marks have been raised about the lack of a reliable goalscorer, but that seems unlikely to be the main issue. Saudi Arabia could be overawed at the back, and while we’re unlikely to see anything like their 8-0 loss to Germany on their last appearance at a World Cup, in 2002, it would be a surprise if they managed a victory.
The favourites for the group are Uruguay, whose odds to win this tournament were cut in half after the group draw - no other side in the competition will face three easier opponents in Russia. The problem is a tricky second round draw, probably against Spain or Portugal.
In terms of this group, however, it would be a major surprise if Oscar Tabarez’s side didn’t progress. Tabarez boasts an astonishing amount of experience, having coached Uruguay for more games than any other coach has coached an international side in history.
This will be his final tournament, and having been a studious tactician throughout much of his second stint in charge, winning games through strategy rather than style, in recent years he’s evolved Uruguay’s quality of possession play impressively.
There are plenty of familiar names here: Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez upfront, and Diego Godin at the back. Uruguay have always produced tough, aggressive players and been very competent in both boxes. Where things have changed, however, is in central midfield. Whereas Tabarez once depended upon Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo, two tough-tackling midfield destroyers, now he’s introduced considerably more technical players.
Matias Vecino is a tidy player who has enjoyed a fine season with Inter, Federico Valverde is capable of dictating a game despite being only 19, and Nahitan Nandez offers good all-round quality from the right. Suddenly, this seems an excellent side across the pitch, with the ability to take the game to opponents, rather than merely playing on the break.
The slight problem - if it can be considered a problem - is that Suarez and Cavani are now undroppable, and unmovable from the centre-forward positions they’re accustomed to at club level. In their younger days both were adaptable and mobile enough to be shifted wide when required, which meant Tabarez, an excellent tactician, had more options and could surprise opponents with clever systems.
That’s less possible now, and Uruguay seem likely to deploy 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1 with Cavani dropping off, in every game. 3-5-2 seems the only obvious alternative.
Suarez generally hits the headlines in World Cups, but Cavani might be more important here. He was Uruguay’s top goalscorer in qualifying and his work rate, often dropping back onto the opposition’s holding midfielder, will prevent Uruguay becoming overloaded in midfield.
In a group featuring plenty of dodgy defenders, Suarez and Cavani should score readily and ensure Uruguay top the group with relative ease. But mark Egypt v Russia in your diary - that could be one of the group stage’s more intriguing clashes.
See all of Michael's other group previews here:
Group B - Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
Group C - Australia, Denmark, France, Peru
Group D - Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
Group E - Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland
Group F - Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden
Group G - Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
Group H - Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal