A summer filled with soccer action is back at The Sports Geek, beginning with group breakdowns and individual team previews for all eight of the groups at the World Cup this summer in Russia. Please also stay tuned for my World Cup betting picks for all of the matches, appearing daily at the site beginning June 14th.
To begin, we’ll kick things off with Group A, featuring the host nation Russians, a tourney dark-horse in Uruguay, Mohamed Salah, and his Egypt side, and finally the lowly Saudi Arabians. At first glance, this appears to be a wildly unpredictable group outside of the Uruguayans at the top. Typically, host countries have fared very well at World Cup tournaments, but there are a ton of question marks surrounding the Russian side and their preparation. Read on below for more detailed team-by-team previews and predictions.
*Odds posted are ‘To Win Group’
Whenever there are major soccer tournaments on an international stage, there is always a ton of mystery surrounding certain unknown teams – this year’s Russians are no different. Many of the nation’s top players don’t get the exposure traditional top stars would, as they choose to stay home and ply their trade in the lower-quality Russian Premier League. Years of players following that pattern has hindered the growth of this program, and despite serving as the hosts this summer, I am foreseeing a tough tournament for the mediocre Russians.
Even though the Russians have a pretty manageable group to navigate – this is a relatively aging squad holding on to players of past generations. In goal, Igor Akinfeev is the undisputed starter, but his skills have been declining. He’ll need to be heroic to give his team a shot.
Look for head coach Stanislav Cherchesov to stick to his old-fashioned ways and employ a 3-5-2 despite its past failures at Euro 2016. In the midfield, Aleksandr Golovkin will take this team’s attack as far as he can, while up front it will be up to Fyodor Smolov if the Russians want to hit the back of the net.
There has been an awful lot of negativity and tension surrounding this group at the moment. Many fans disagree with current tactics and player deployment, and if the Russians don’t beat a lowly Saudi Arabia side comfortably on the opening night of the World Cup – things could spiral out of control for the Russians. Keep in mind, host teams do not go through pre-tournament qualifying and their recent friendlies have not been impressive. I anticipate them having a tough time with a more talented Uruguay side and a very defensively compact group from Egypt. Ultimately, the Russians won’t be secure at the back, and won’t have enough creativity going forward to progress on home soil. Only one World Cup host nation ever has not advanced from the Group Stage (South Africa narrowly missed out in 2010), but I’d expect the Russians to be added to that list a couple of weeks from now.
Finally, it’s time for the talented Uruguayans to make the leap from a good team, to one of the world’s football powerhouses. Their veterans are experienced enough to handle the spotlight better than years past, while their youth is no longer too immature to meaningfully contribute on soccer’s grandest stage.
They will continue to be led by their extremely talented striking duo of front of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. That twosome work so well together and enter the tournament as likely the top attacking pair coming to Russia this summer. Luis Suarez has also matured heavily in recent seasons, and you can bet he won’t be in danger of biting any members of the opposition this time around. He is well aware his temper has hurt his country before, and I foresee this as a huge redemption opportunity for the Barcelona striker.
Uruguay has burst back on to the global scene in recent years led by that Suarez-Cavani duo, but have endured their fair share of early exits and heartbreaks. At Russia 2018, they’ve been fortunate enough to be buoyed with an easy group stage slate of games, and are entering the tourney a confident group after promising showings in South American World Cup qualifying. They’ll be loaded in midfield with talented youngsters and creative players such as Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Betancur while having a familiar centre-back partnership in Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez.
Uruguay has all the pieces for a deep run in Russia, but it’s contingent upon them ensuring they win Group A – which they really should do. This team is comfortable with one another and a recent injection of young talent has invigorated the side to reach new heights.
Head coach Hector Cuper has the Egyptians rolling at just the right time as they excitedly enter Russia 2018 this summer. Everybody knows all about prolific striker Mohamed Salah. He is coming off a dominant season at Liverpool and is expected to recover just in time from a shoulder injury for the Egyptians first match against Uruguay.
Egypt will go as far as Salah will take them in this tournament. With his blistering pace, electrifying dribbling, and scintillating shot – there aren’t many defenders in the world that can effectively deal with Salah. If the Pharaohs can sneak out a positive result in their opening match against a powerful Uruguayan side, you have to love their chances to advance.
Many of the criticisms surrounding Cuper’s side focus on the fact that Salah doesn’t have the supporting cast he needs to truly thrive – but that isn’t exactly true. With talented players coming off career years in Europe such as Mahmoud Hassan Trezeguet and Amr Warda, the Egyptian attack can and will make a difference this tournament.
Where Egypt is most formidable though is with their team defense and overall structure. They are well-coached and stay compact, and very much adhere to a team-first philosophy. Their 4-2-3-1 formation typically stifles the opposition, reducing their creativity, and allowing Salah the one or two chances he needs to breakthrough and make a difference.
This is a team to watch, and given the troubles of the Russians – I’m liking the Pharaohs to be a surprise advancing side at the tournament this summer.
Saudi Arabia (+5000)
Out of all the teams in this group, nobody enters with more uncertainty than the Saudi Arabians. Even in a relatively weakened group, the Saudis will likely struggle. They aren’t very solid at all defensively and their entire preparation for this tournament has seemed disorganized and chaotic.
In order to prepare many of their top players for Russia 2018, they oddly sent some of their key talent to play in the upper-tier Spanish leagues as part of an agreement. Unsurprisingly though, many of their national team members were not good enough to regularly play in Spain – and instead this plan has backfired with the Green Falcons’ best players entering the World Cup after months of inactivity. The Saudi Football Association has also been very keen and eager on achieving some level of success at Russia 2018 – changing the head coach regularly. After Bert van Marwijk did a great job to qualify Saudi Arabia for this tournament, he was pushed out of the coaching position and Juan Antonio Pizzi was brought in to replace him. Pizzi has not endured much success for Saudi Arabia since he took over – easily losing three of their past pre-tournament encounters. He is now their fourth coach in three years, and the lack of continuity and consistency has really hurt the program.
Saudi Arabia likes to sit back and strike on the counter, but I doubt they’ll be talented enough for either on the global stage. Their defenders are old and will concede plenty of chances, while in terms of attacking quality there isn’t much outside of winger Fahad Al-Muwallad – the Saudi Arabian Messi as he’s been dubbed. Progression from the group stage would be stunning from them at this tournament, and I would not be shocked to see the Green Falcons fail to register a single point at Russia 2018.