Teams (world ranking in brackets): Russia (70), Saudi Arabia (67), Egypt (45), Uruguay (14)
Russia vs Saudi Arabia, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Egypt vs Uruguay, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
Russia vs Egypt, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Uruguay vs Russia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
Saudi Arabia vs Egypt, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Head Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov
Captain: Igor Akinfeev
Previous Appearances: 3 (1994, 2002, 2014)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1994, 2002, 2014)
Qualification Top Scorer: N/A
Goalkeepers: 1. Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), 12. Andrey Lunyov (Zenit), 20. Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge).
Defenders: 2. Mário Fernandes (CSKA Moscow), 3. Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), 4. Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), 5. Andrei Semyonov (Akhmat Grozny), 13. Fyodor Kudryashov (Rubin Kazan), 14. Vladimir Granat (Rubin Kazan), 23. Igor Smolnikov (Zenit).
Midfielders: 6. Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal), 7. Daler Kuzyayev (Zenit), 8. Yury Gazinsky (Krasnodar), 9. Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow), 11. Roman Zobnin (Spartak Moscow), 15. Aleksei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), 16. Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), 17. Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow), 18. Yuri Zhirkov (Zenit), 19. Aleksandr Samedov (Spartak Moscow), 21. Aleksandr Yerokhin (Zenit).
Forwards: 10. Fyodor Smolov (Krasnodar), 22. Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula).
Russia will enjoy the support of their home crowds at this year’s event, and they may just have the team to make a run. As hosts, the Russians have been drawn into one of the easiest groups in the tournament, and they will have a decent chance of progressing against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay. In goal, Igor Akinfeev has vast experience and is a proven performer at the highest level, and his leadership will be important. Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Golovin are quality playmakers in midfield, while Fyodor Smolov has been a dependable scorer within Russia for a few seasons and could have an impact. Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad contains some exciting fresh faces, with Golovin, Roman Zobnin, Daler Kuzyayev and the identical Miranchuk twins (Aleksei and Anton) all capable of giving the Russians an extra boost that was lacking at Euro 2016. In front of their fans the Russians may just be a surprise packet who could make a run.
Fyodor Smolov finds the back of the net against New Zealand at the Confederations Cup. Smolov will be a dangerous presence in Russia’s attack at the World Cup.
All of this, however, cannot paper over the glaring cracks within the team. The Russians have not played competitively since the Confederations Cup, where they bombed out with losses to Portugal and Mexico, and it is not clear whether they would have qualified without hosting rights. Their preparation was so poor that at one point the Russians played a friendly against club side Dinamo Moscow, because they couldn’t arrange to play against a full international team. On the field, they have plenty of other issues, especially in defence. The retirements of Sergei Ignashevich, former captain Vasili Berezutski and his brother Aleksandr left a huge hole before injuries to Viktor Vasin, Georgi Dzhikiya and Ruslan Kamborov depleted their stocks further. The situation has deteriorated to the point where the 38-year-old Ignashevich has reversed his retirement to fill the void, but the defensive problems are by no means solved. There is a general lack of quality all over the park borne from a lack of players who play outside Russia, and this could prove problematic as they look to get through the group stage.
Star Player: Fyodor Smolov
Smolov has become a regular in the Russian attack in the last few years, due in no small part to his goal-scoring exploits for Krasnodar. He has bagged 52 league goals in the last three seasons after leaving Dinamo Moscow on a free transfer, and he has become an integral part of the Russian team. He has risen rapidly over the last few years, and he is capable of finding the back of the net against the world’s best.
Key Player: Igor Akinfeev
Akinfeev has over 100 caps for Russia, and he has been a key pillar of both the national side and CSKA Moscow for over 10 years. His experience at the highest level will be especially critical given his side’s defensive difficulties, and the Russians will need him to stand up and perform if they are to make any progress.
Aleksandr Golovin evades a challenge in a friendly against Turkey. Golovin is a talented prospect and a key part of Russia’s midfield.
One to watch: Aleksandr Golovin
Golovin is just 22, but he is already a high-class footballer who will form a key part of Russia’s World Cup plans. He is a well-rounded central midfielder who works hard in both defence and attack, and in the last few seasons he has established himself as an integral part of CSKA Moscow’s midfield. He has plenty of talent, and if he gets going he could make a big mark on the world stage.
Russia could be a strong side, and they do have an easy group, but a lot will have to go right if they are to progress deep into their home tournament. It’s hard to see them making a big run with so many issues.
Likely Team (3-5-1-1): Akinfeev; Kudryashov, Ignashevich, Kutepov; Samedov, Zobnin, Golovin, Dzagoev, Zhirkov; Aleksei Miranchuk; Smolov.
Head Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Captain: Osama Hawsawi
Previous Appearances: 4 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994)
Qualified: AFC, 2nd Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (16)
Goalkeepers: 1. Abdullah Al-Mayouf (Al-Hilal), 21. Yasser Al-Mosailem (Al-Ahli), 22. Mohammed Al-Owais (Al-Ahli).
Defenders: 2. Mansoor Al-Harbi (Al-Ahli), 3. Osama Hawsawi (Al-Hilal), 4. Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al-Hilal), 5. Omar Hawsawi (Al-Nassr), 6. Mohammed Al-Breik (Al-Hilal), 13. Yasser Al-Shehrani (Al-Hilal), 23. Motaz Hawsawi (Al-Ahli).
Midfielders: 7. Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal), 8. Yahya Al-Shehri (Leganés), 9. Hassan Bahebri (Al-Shabab), 11. Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri (Al-Hilal), 12. Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal), 14. Abdullah Otayf (Al-Hilal), 15. Abdullah Al-Khaibari (Al-Shabab), 16. Housain Al-Mogahwi (Al-Ahli), 17. Taisir Al-Jassim (Al-Ahli), 18. Salem Al-Dawsari (Villarreal).
Forwards: 10. Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr), 19. Fahad Al-Muwallad (Levante), 20. Muhannad Assiri (Al-Ahli).
Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (right) battles for the ball in qualifying against the UAE. Al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals in qualification, making him Saudi Arabia’s leading scorer.
Saudi Arabia managed to proceed automatically to the World Cup after a long qualifying campaign, eventually avoiding the play-offs on goal difference with a 1-0 victory over Japan. Their team contains plenty of experience, with key players Osama Hawsawi and Taisir Al-Jassim each recording over 130 caps. Up front, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is very capable of finding the back of the net, and if he receives quality service he will make an impact. In Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad the Saudis have some quality creative players at their disposal, and both Taisir Al-Jassim and Abdullah Otayf will provide solidity in central midfield. The skills of their creative players could be especially dangerous if their defence steps up, and a settled back four of Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsari, Yasser Al-Shehrani and Mansoor Al-Harbi could be hard to break down. Most of the squad comes from just two clubs, making the Saudis a tight-knit group who could make a splash.
There are, however, plenty of issues. The man who led the Green Falcons to Russia, Bert van Marwijk, left shortly after the win over Japan that sealed their passage due to a contractual dispute. As a result, Juan Antonio Pizzi is their third coach in less than a year, making the close bonds within the squad more important than ever. Most of the squad play their football in Saudi Arabia, meaning that they receive precious little exposure to the world’s best, and this lack of top level experience could be a problem. Al-Shehri, Al-Muwallad and Al-Dawsari come to the World Cup with a combined total of two substitute appearances in the last six months thanks to ill-fated loan spells in Spain, and the omission of key playmaker Nawaf Al-Abed means this could be a problem. Saudi Arabia’s previous trips to the World Cup finals have resulted in some shockingly limp efforts, and they will be hoping that they can avoid a similar story here.
Star Player: Yahya Al-Shehri
Al-Shehri will be Saudi Arabia’s main creator in Russia, and with his ability to create chances for both himself and others he could be a handful for defenders at the World Cup. He has the versatility to play on both wings and behind a central striker, and he should combine well with Al-Sahlawi in attack. He hasn’t played at a club level since going out on loan to Leganés, but he can still make a difference.
Yahya Al-Shehri scores in a pre-tournament friendly against Italy. Al-Shehri is one of the Green Falcons’ most skilled players, and will play a big role in Russia.
Key Player: Osama Hawsawi
Hawsawi has been a key part of the Saudi team since making his debut in 2007, and his 134 caps’ worth of experience in the heart of defence will be invaluable for the Green Falcons. He is a quality defender who will provide on-field leadership, and Saudi Arabia will need him to lead from the front if they are going to progress past the group stage.
One to watch: Fahad Al-Muwallad
Al-Muwallad scored the goal against Japan that sent the Saudis through to the World Cup, and the 23-year-old winger is one of their brightest young prospects. He is fast and has the ability to find the back of the net, and he made history late in the season when he became the first Saudi player to play in La Liga (although he only made one appearance). He could shine if given the opportunity.
They have plenty of talent, especially up front, but a lack of exposure to the top-level and a lack of time for Pizzi and his players to gel could derail their campaign. It won’t be easy for the Green Falcons as they look to escape the group stage for the first time.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Al-Mosailem; Al-Shehrani, Omar Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi, Al-Harbi; Al-Jassim, Otayf; Al-Dawsari, Al-Shehri, Al-Muwallad; Al-Sahlawi.
Head Coach: Héctor Cúper
Captain: Essam El-Hadary
Previous Appearances: 2 (1934, 1990)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1934, 1990)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group E
Qualification Top Scorer: Mohamed Salah (5)
Goalkeepers: 1. Essam El-Hadary (Al-Taawoun), Sherif Ekramy (Al Ahly), 23. Mohamed El-Shenawy (Al Ahly).
Defenders: 2. Ali Gabr (West Bromwich Albion), 3. Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa), 6. Ahmed Hegazi (West Bromwich Albion), 7. Ahmed Fathy (Al Ahly), 12. Ayman Ashraf (Al Ahly), 13. Mohamed Abdel-Shafy (Al-Fateh), 20. Saad Samir (Al Ahly).
Midfielders: 4. Omar Gaber (Los Angeles FC), 5. Sam Morsy (Wigan Athletic), 8. Tarek Hamed (Zamalek), 14. Ramadhan Sobhi (Stoke City), 15. Mahmoud Hamdy (Zamalek), 17. Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), 19. Abdallah Said (KuPS), 21. Trézéguet (Kasımpaşa).
Forwards: 9. Marwan Mohsen (Al Ahly), 10. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), 11. Kahraba (Al-Ittihad), 18. Shikabala (Al-Raed), 22. Amr Warda (Atromitos).
Egypt qualified for their first World Cup since 1990 on the back of Mohamed Salah’s goals, and they will consider themselves a big chance in the easiest group at this tournament. Salah has been in imperious form for Liverpool this season, breaking the record for most goals in a 38-game Premier League season and establishing himself as a truly world-class player. He is backed up by some talented young players like Ramadhan Sobhi and Trézéguet, while Abdallah Said is also capable of creating quality chances. Elneny has had injury problems this season, but he is still a solid player in central midfield and he will shield a solid defensive pairing of Ali Gabr and Ahmed Hegazi. The two West Brom centre-backs are well-supported by Ahmed Fathy, Mohamed Abdel-Shafy and Ahmed Elmohamady, and 45-year-old captain Essam El-Hadary will become the oldest player in World Cup history when he stands in goal in Russia. Egypt have some good players, and should not be underestimated.Embed from Getty Images
Mohamed Salah scores during a qualifying game against the Congo. Salah’s injury from the Champions League final is a major concern for the Egyptians.
Then there’s the elephant in the room. Going into the Champions League final, Egypt were in a pretty good position. Then, 30 minutes in, disaster struck. Salah was involved in a tangle with Sergio Ramos, and left the field in tears, nursing his injured shoulder. Salah is not the only player in the Egyptian set-up playing for a top club (Elneny is currently at Arsenal), but he is the best player in their side by a very long way. He is in the squad, and is likely to play through pain, but his injury could severely limit his impact. Given Egypt’s biggest issue heading into the World Cup was an over-reliance on Salah, his injury means others will need to step up and fill the void. Furthermore, Héctor Cúper has dropped their first-choice striker, Kouka, for the World Cup, leaving the previously injured Marwan Mohsen to lead the line. Whether he can do this, especially if Salah is not at his best, could make or break Egypt’s campaign.
Star Player: Mohamed Salah
Salah may be injured, but Egypt’s star right-winger can still have an impact. He is quick, skilled and has a knack for finding himself in good positions, and his ability to get in behind defences will make him a handful for any opponent. Salah remains Egypt’s sole world-class player, and if he can get on the pitch he is a chance to back up his scintillating form at Liverpool.
Key Player: Ahmed Hegazi
Hegazi moved to the Premier League on loan at the start of the season, and quickly established himself as a permanent member of West Brom’s defence. Having since been signed from Zamalek, Hegazi has a chance to further his reputation as a dependable centre-back with strong performances at the World Cup. He is physically imposing and can provide an aerial threat at corners, and Egypt will be relying on him to step up on the big stage.
Trézéguet (right) runs down the wing during an African Cup of Nations match against Ghana. Creative players like Trézéguet will need to step up in Russia if Egypt are going to perform.
One to watch: Trézéguet
Trézéguet has been performing well for Kasımpaşa after going out on loan, and the quick winger has plenty of talent. He has been linked with a move to the Premier League following the World Cup, and he could boost his value if he performs well for the Pharaohs. Trézéguet is one of the players who will be looking to step up after Salah’s injury, and is an exciting prospect for Egypt going forward.
With a fully-fit Salah, Egypt have the team to make a splash at the World Cup. With his injury, their fate is not so clear, and it will be interesting to see how Héctor Cúper’s side respond.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): El-Hadary; Fathy, Hegazi, Gabr, Abdel-Shafy; Elneny, Hamed; Salah, Said, Trézéguet; Mohsen.
Head Coach: Óscar Tabárez
Captain: Diego Godín
Previous Appearances: 12 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1986, 1990, 2002, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1930, 1950)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 2nd
Qualification Top Scorer: Edinson Cavani (10)
Goalkeepers: 1. Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), 12. Martín Campaña (Independiente), 23. Martín Silva (Vasco da Gama).
Defenders: 2. José María Giménez (Atlético Madrid), 3. Diego Godín (Atlético Madrid), 4. Guillermo Varela (Peñarol), 13. Gastón Silva (Independiente), 16. Maxi Pereira (Porto), 19. Sebastián Coates (Sporting), 22. Martín Cáceres (Lazio).
Midfielders: 5. Carlos Sánchez (Monterrey), 6. Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus), 7. Cristian Rodríguez (Peñarol), 8. Nahitan Nández (Boca Juniors), 10. Giorgian de Arrascaeta (Cruzeiro), 14. Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria), 15. Matías Vecino (Internazionale), 17. Diego Laxalt (Genoa).
Forwards: 9. Luis Suárez (Barcelona), 11. Cristhian Stuani (Girona), 18. Maxi Gómez (Celta Vigo), 20. Jonathan Urretaviscaya (Monterrey), 21. Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain).
Uruguay have every reason to be confident heading into this World Cup. They progressed reasonably comfortably through a CONMEBOL qualifying group that was as hotly-contested as ever, and they are the clear team to beat in this group. In Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez the Uruguayans possess two of the world’s best strikers, with either one on their own presenting a significant challenge for any defence. Down back, Atlético Madrid stars Diego Godín and José María Giménez form one of the most formidable central defensive pairings at the tournament, and they are supported by capable defenders in Martín Cáceres, Maxi Pereira, Sebastián Coates, Gastón Silva and Guillermo Varela. In goal, Fernando Muslera is a seasoned campaigner who is a consistent performer at the top level. Their experienced core is completed by a talented young midfield, with Rodrigo Bentancur, Matías Vecino, Nahitan Nández and Giorgian de Arrascaeta likely to feature prominently. With this blend of experience and youth, and plenty of quality at both ends, Uruguay will be a formidable opponent.Embed from Getty Images
Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring against Brazil in World Cup qualifying. Cavani’s combination with Luis Suárez could be very potent in Russia.
Their lack of experience in midfield, however, could hurt them, as could a lack of depth in attack. Their new-look midfield may need some time to click, with most of their likely starters in Russia still relatively new to the national team. This could impact the side in both attack and defence, and they will need their young players to step up if they are to make a deep run. While the pairing of Giménez and Godín is reliable, Óscar Tabárez has not yet pinned down his best full-back pairing, with Cáceres, Silva, Varela, Pereira and Diego Laxalt all receiving opportunities since qualifying finished. An injury to either Suárez or Cavani could also prove costly, especially with Abel Hernández and Diego Rolán already on the sidelines. The Uruguayans are clearly the strongest team in the group, but their opponents are capable of staging an upset if given the opportunity and Tabárez’s side will be burdened by big expectations.
Star Player: Luis Suárez
Suárez will be eager to atone for his efforts at the last World Cup, where he went in as Uruguay’s biggest hope but left in disgrace after biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. If he can keep himself in line, which has proved a problem in the past, Suárez is a very skilled striker who knows how to find the back of the net. His combination with Cavani could be devastating for opposing defences, and he could be primed for a big individual tournament.
Luis Suárez celebrates scoring against England in the 2014 World Cup. Suárez’s tournament was later cut short after he bit Giorgio Chiellini, and he will be looking to make amends for that this time around.
Key Player: Diego Godín
Godín is an elite centre-back, having marshalled Uruguay’s and Atlético Madrid’s defences for some time. He is good in the air (and has a handy knack of picking up goals in big games) and is part of a solid central defensive pairing with Giménez that allows the rest of the side to thrive. Uruguay still depend on his ability and experience, and they will need him to be at his best.
One to watch: Rodrigo Bentancur
Bentancur is able to fill basically any midfield role for the Uruguayans, and this versatility allowed him to slot in perfectly during his first season with Italian giants Juventus. He is physically imposing and can play anywhere from defensive midfield to the wing, making him a valuable member of Tabárez’s squad despite his relative inexperience. He could have a very big role to play.
Uruguay’s injection of youth seems to be the main difference from their last World Cup campaign, and there is no reason why they can’t go far. If Suárez and Cavani combine well they could easily blow away their group stage opponents.
Likely Team (4-1-2-1-2): Muslera; Varela, Godín, Giménez, G Silva; Nández; Vecino, Bentancur; de Arrascaeta; Suárez, Cavani.
This group is probably the easiest in the competition, which should lead to a very tight race for second spot. Uruguay are almost impossible to go past with their line-up of established stars at the best clubs in Europe, and they should cruise through in first. Then come the other three teams, who are very evenly matched. Before Salah’s injury, Egypt would have been clear favourites to progress, and they still look like the most balanced side of the three. Neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia can be written off, however, and the matches between the three teams should be very interesting to watch.
1. Uruguay, 2. Egypt, 3. Russia, 4. Saudi Arabia.