Group A preview: Can Russia advance to knockout stage?

Russia's Fedor Smolov celebrates after scoring the team's third goal during an international friendly football match between Russia and Spain at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on November 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's Fedor Smolov celebrates after scoring the team's third goal during an international friendly football match between Russia and Spain at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on November 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images) /

Russia, Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia make up the four teams in Group A at the 2018 World Cup. Here’s what to expect from each side in Russia.

Russia are among the worst host nations in World Cup history, at least according to the FIFA rankings, but a kind group-stage draw gives them hope of advancing. Partisan crowds will bolster the home team’s advantage, but will that be enough to get through the group?

The biggest story in Group A is undoubtedly Uruguay, who enter as the clear favorites to advance. Uruguay feature more talent than any other team in the draw, and they’re entering the tournament in good form. Will they play down to the level of their competition?

Then there are neighbors representing two different continental confederations. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are separated by less than 10 miles by the Gulf of Aqaba in the Egyptian northeast and the Saudi Arabian northwest. Yet Egypt represent Africa, and Saudi Arabia represent Asia. The two neighbors will battle with Russia for second place behind Uruguay.

Who is the catalyst that could guide each team to glory? What is the biggest question facing each team in the tournament this year? Here’s what to expect from each side.

(Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images) /


Last year was a huge year for the Pharaohs. Egypt began the year as the runners-up to Cameroon at the 2017 African Cup of Nations in January. Then they finished up the third round of CAF qualifying to reach the World Cup for the first time since the 1990 tournament in Italy.

Led by Argentine journeyman manager Hector Cuper, Egypt are hoping the World Cup can open up a new golden age for soccer in the country. A strong showing in Russia would generate momentum for the sport back home. It would also create new opportunities for players to showcase their skills for foreign clubs.

A team that already features a mix of foreign and domestic talent could offer several breakout stars this year. But Egypt’s fate will ultimately be determined by their most talented player. How far the Egyptians go in the World Cup this year will depend on how far Mohamed Salah can take them.

Key player: Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah set a Premier League record over a 38-match season, scoring 32 goals for Liverpool. He was also a catalyst for Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final. He was forced off with a shoulder injury after 30 minutes, but is expected to recover in time for the World Cup. He led all scorers in African qualifying, netting five goals to help Egypt earn one of the final 32 spots ahead of Ghana and Uganda. The Premier League player of the year in 2017-18 will have to take charge for the Pharaohs to advance.

Biggest question: Will other scorers emerge for Egypt?

In World Cup qualifying, Egypt depended heavily on Salah for their goals. He scored five of Egypt’s eight goals over a half-dozen matches in the third round of qualifying. He was also responsible for two of Egypt’s five goals over the six matches of the 2017 African Cup of Nations. The Egyptian side relies heavily on their defense to keep the scoring down on the back end. To get out of Group A, they’ll need to get scoring from Mohamed Elneny, Abdallah Said and the rest of the squad.

(Photo by Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) /


In 2010, South Africa became the first host of the World Cup to fail to reach the knockout stage. Russia face an uphill battle to ensure they don’t become the second host to fail to advance out of their group. Working against the Russians is the fact they haven’t advanced out of the group stage at a World Cup since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Crowds in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Samara will try to provide a home-team advantage for the Russian squad. They’re captained by 32-year-old veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. The keeper has spent his entire career with CSKA Moscow and boasts over 100 caps for the Russian national team.

Injury issues have plagued the roster, and depth could become an issue for the hosts. But winnable matches against Egypt and Saudi Arabia offer an opening to advance.

Key player: Fyodor Smolov

With the injury to Aleksandr Kokorin, the bulk of the scoring duties will fall on the shoulders of striker Fyodor Smolov. The Krasnodar forward finished as the top-scoring Russian in the Russian Premier League in the 2017-18 season. Russia will depend on Smolov to generate enough goals to get the team out of the group. If he can partner effectively with Alexei Miranchuk up top, Smolov could have a breakout tournament.

Biggest question: Can hosts get past Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

It will be tough to finish first overall in Group A. Uruguay simply have more weapons that any other team in the group. That puts Russia in direct competition with Egypt and Saudi Arabia for the second spot in the knockout round. The Russians haven’t won a match since last October’s friendly against South Korea. A lot of pressure will fall on a three-man defense and goalkeeper Akinfeev to keep talented opponents off the scoreboard.

(Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images) /

Saudi Arabia

After missing the FWorld Cup in 2010 and 2014, Saudi Arabia return for their fifth appearance in the tournament. The Saudi Arabian side were a staple of the tournament over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s. They made the group stage of four straight World Cups between 1994 and 2006 but fell out over the past decade.

The team had already qualified for the World Cup by the time Juan Antonio Pizzi came on as the manager of the Falcons. Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch architect of the qualification, failed to come to terms on a new contract with the Saudi Arabian federation. To replace van Marwijk, Saudi Arabia first turned toward Edgardo Bauza. The Argentine lasted just five matches before getting sacked.

Now it falls to another Argentine coach to try to steer Saudi Arabia to the knockout stage for the first time since 1994. Can Pizzi pull off the feat?

Key player: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi

Over the course of 18 World Cup qualifying matches, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals for Saudi Arabia. In the process, the 31-year-old Al-Sahlawi experienced a career renaissance that more than doubled his career goals for the Saudi Arabian national team. The Al-Nassr star scored more than one-third of Saudi Arabia’s 45 goals in Asian qualifying.

Biggest question: Is there enough big-time experience on the roster?

Almost all of the players in Saudi Arabia’s final 23-man roster for Russia play domestically. There’s a dearth of foreign experience on the national team. While the Saudi Arabian league has improved over time and provides a home for foreign stars to extend their careers, it’s hardly the best incubator of top-shelf talent. The European experience of players like Yahya Al-Shehri is rare, but could be critical.

(Photo by Xin Li/Getty Images)
(Photo by Xin Li/Getty Images) /


In Brazil four years ago, Uruguay lost 2-0 to Colombia in the round of 16. At the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay made it to the semifinals and finished fourth. The two-time champions earned the most favorable possible draw and will be favored in every match in the group stage.

Uruguay easily boast the most talent of any squad in Group A. Their players star not for Uruguayan clubs but for some of the top clubs in Europe. Manager Oscar Tabarez has the deepest squad of anyone in the group.

But with the obvious talent comes obvious expectation. Nothing short of finishing atop Group A will satisfy the fanbase of Los Charruas. It will all come down to how well Uruguay finish on the attacking end. They finished qualifying in second place in CONMEBOL, scoring 32 goals in 18 matches.

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Key player: Edinson Cavani

Luis Suarez is always going to be a catalyst for Uruguay. But for the South American side to succeed in their quest to dominate Group A, they need Edinson Cavani to maintain his goalscoring form. The Paris Saint-Germain striker led all scorers in South American qualifying, netting 10 of Uruguay’s 32 goals. For Uruguay to advance deep into the tournament, Cavani will have to break free of a reputation for fading on the big stage.

Biggest question: Will Suarez behave?

Suarez will have to show up on the score sheet for Uruguay to go anywhere in the 2018 World Cup. Now an elder statesman for Uruguay and Barcelona, Suarez will also need to be on his best behavior in Russia. Four years ago, the striker became El Mordedor when he took a bite out of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup. It wasn’t his first time biting an opponent, as he got in trouble for using his teeth in club play at Ajax and Liverpool. Suarez also generated controversy with his handball to save a Ghana goal in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup.

Prediction: 1. Uruguay 2. Egypt 3. Russia 4. Saudi Arabia