Group A features hosts Russia. This looks, on paper, to be the weakest group of all. Even the latest FIFA rankings list suggests so. It features the two lowest ranked teams in the competition, Saudi Arabia at 67 and Russia at 70. The highest ranked team in the group is Uruguay, at 14. The other team is Egypt, currently ranked 45. The rankings would suggest that Uruguay and Egypt will qualify from this group. However, it is never so simple in football. Each and every World Cup in the past has produced major upsets, and that is what gives hope to each of the so called minnows to progress into the knockout stage. Remember Costa Rica from 2014?
As hosts, Russia will get near fanatical support from the stands and enjoy other home advantages. Coached by former international goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov (who played in the 1992 and 2002 world cups), they can be quite a strong, fluent team on their day. In Igor Akinfeev, the Russians have an experienced and skilful goalkeeper, who is also the squad captain. The defence will be led by the 38 year old Sergei Ignashevich, while the experienced Vladimir Granat has been recalled. Brazil born Mario Fernandes is a new addition to the defence and can make a difference.
Russia’s key players in midfield are Alan Dzagoev and Yuri Zhirkhov, though younger players like the Miranchuk twins Aleksei and Anton, and Villarreal’s Denis Cheryshev can also play a part. The attack will depend on Fyodor Smolov and Artem Dzyuba, with support from Aleksandr Samedov.
Critics think Saudi Arabia to be the team with the least chance of qualifying from this group, but who knows! One has to remember that one of the best ever individual goals in World Cup history was scored by a Saudi Arabian, Saeed Al-Owairan, in the 1994 Cup.
Coached by Juan Antonio Pizzi (who played for Spain in the 1998 world cup), the team is depending mostly on passion, spirit and fitness. Most of the players play for the two major clubs of the Kingdom, Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal, and know each other well. They could well be the spoilers in this group – taking a point from one of the other teams to hamper their chances of progress.
Yasser Al-Mosailem is their most experienced keeper in the squad and is a competent performer. The defence will be led by captain Osama Hawsawi, a tall, strong central defender with plenty of international experience. Two other Hawsawis, brother Motaz and Omar, will lend him support at the back. The midfield general is Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri, and he will be ably assisted by Salman Al-Faraz, Abdulla Otayf and winger Yahya Al-Shehri. The attack depends a lot on Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and possibly Fawad Al-Muwallad.
Egypt will be playing in the world cup after 28 years. Mohamed Salah is undoubtedly their best known player. He has been in superb form for club and country for the last year or so, but his injury in the Champions League final has been worrying for Egypt’s supporters.
Still, coached by the Argentine Hector Cuper, Egypt is far from a one man team. Their captain and goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary is going to break the record of being the oldest ever world cup player. At 45, he remains one of Africa’s best ever keepers. The heart of the defence will be marshalled by the admirable Ahmed Hegazi, assisted, probably, by Ali Gabr or Saad Samir. Side backs Ahmed Elmohamady (right) and Mohamed Abdel-Shafy (left) bring in experience and flair.
Defensive midfielder Ahmed Fathy will help the defence as well as start the counter attack. Mohamed Elneny and young Sam Morsy can play key roles in midfield, while the dynamic Mahmood Hassan, known as Trezeguet, and Mahmoud Fadlallah, known as Shikabala, can split open defences with elan.
The attack will have Salah, if fit. The electrifying winger Mahmoud Abdel-Moneim, known as Kahraba, can be quite a handful, while Ramadan Sobhi is another talented young winger. What they lack is a quality striker of experience, if Salah is unable to play at his best. Young Marwan Mohsen will have to step up, if needed.
Uruguay will be coached by the tournament’s oldest and most experienced coach Oscar Tabarez, for whom this will be his 4th world cup. They have several players who would be playing their third successive world cups, including the splendid Fernando Muslera in goal. The defence includes captain Diego Godin, Maxi Pereira and Martin Caceres, along with Sebastian Coates and Jose Gimenez – plenty of world cup experience there.
The midfield contains many talented players like the experienced winger Cristian Rodriguez, the aggressive Carlos Sanchez, the fluent Matias Vecino and above all, the young and highly skilled Giorgian De Arrascaeta, who might be one of the new stars of this world cup. The attack comprising of Luiz Suarez and Edinson Cavani can be one of the most potent attacks in the competition and could cause huge trouble to most opponents’ defence, in more ways than one, perhaps.
One would expect Uruguay to qualify from this group, along with Egypt or Russia. Personally, I would love it if Egypt makes it to the next stage.
(From the desk of Rajat Subhra Banerjee)