Al-Dawsari gives Saudis something to cheer about as Egypt leave empty-handed

Saudi Arabia were passing the ball around comfortably as their game against Egypt wound to a close. The scores were tied, and the dead rubber between two already eliminated teams seemed headed for an entertaining draw as the Green Falcons held possession but didn’t look like penetrating Egypt’s well-set defence. The referee had added four minutes of stoppage time, and that time had just elapsed. Any second, Wilmar Roldán would blow his whistle, marking the end of both teams’ tournaments. Saudi Arabia’s long passing move had gradually progressed closer to their goal, and in the game’s final seconds the ball was at the feet of Mohammed Al-Breik on the edge of the box. He crossed it in and found Abdullah Otayf, who flicked the ball up for Salem Al-Dawsari. Al-Dawsari was on a tight angle, and he was faced by 45-year-old World Cup debutant Essam El-Hadary, the oldest player to ever feature at the tournament. Al-Dawsari was unfazed, slipping his shot through the narrow gap and finding the back of the net. After a horrendous World Cup campaign ended in a shockingly limp exit, the last kick of their tournament finally gave Saudi Arabia something to cheer about.

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Salem Al-Dawsari backflips with joy to celebrate scoring a late winner. The goal gave Saudi Arabia something to take away from an otherwise disappointing campaign.

The Saudis started the game well, controlling possession and keeping Egypt pinned back but failing to really threaten Essam El-Hadary’s goal save for the occasional long shot over the bar. Then, nearly 20 minutes in, Mohamed Salah delivered a five-minute blast which put Saudi Arabia behind and left them chasing the game. Against the Saudis, Salah was playing a more central role than he did against Russia, and it paid off for the Pharaohs. His short period of dominance began with a fast counter-attack. Salah found space on the break and kicked it a long way forward, daring Motaz Hawsawi to get there first. The centre-back showed a brilliant turn of speed to reach the ball seconds before his sprinting opponent, but the threat was clear. Salah was in behind again a few moments later, but he found himself offside. Shortly after, he scored. A perfect long pass from Abdallah Said split the middle of the Saudi centre-backs, and Salah ducked in between them. He controlled it with one touch, and as Yasser Al-Mosailem, the third keeper tried by Saudi Arabia in three matches, rushed out to meet him he lofted the ball over the keeper’s head from the edge of the box. As one, the three Saudi players surrounding him turned back towards the goal to chase the ball. They were never going to catch it. A few minutes later Salah was in again, but he failed in his attempts to chip Al-Mosailem and the shot went just wide. The brilliant chance went begging, and soon Saudi Arabia recovered.

Gradually, the Green Falcons settled back into the contest, regaining control of proceedings and settling things down. Then, they equalised, courtesy of two penalties. The first came when Ahmed Fathy’s inadvertent handball in the box was punished, giving Fahad Al-Muwallad a chance from the spot. It was a perfect chance to equalise and push on in the game. Then El-Hadary, Egypt’s veteran of 159 caps, stepped in. Flinging himself to his right, El-Hadary stuck out a hand, and Al-Muwallad could only watch as his penalty was harmlessly deflected into the post. Unfortunately for Egypt and El-Hadary, they weren’t so lucky next time around. Roldán decided another spot kick was in order a few minutes later, when Al-Muwallad tangled with Ali Gabr in the box. There was a lengthy delay while the video assistant referee got involved, but after much deliberation nothing changed and the penalty stood. Salman Al-Faraj was chosen to take it after Al-Muwallad’s earlier struggles, and he slotted it home.

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Essam El-Hadary (in blue) is embraced by his teammates after saving Fahad Al-Muwallad’s penalty. El-Hadary became the oldest player to feature in a World Cup match, and his penalty save was the highlight of his match.

Saudi Arabia started the second half well, continuing to get into good positions and presenting a challenge for the Egyptian defence. Hattan Bahebri had a chance when Al-Breik’s cross was deflected to him by Ahmed Hegazi’s errant touch. He wasn’t ready for the opportunity and failed to capitalise, blasting the volley over El-Hadary’s exposed goal. As the game went on, Egypt began to mount some attacks of their own, exerting a bit of control after Saudi Arabia’s fast start to the second half. Their chances somehow looked more dangerous. Marwan Mohsen’s header went just wide of Al-Mosailem’s goal. Kahraba came on and found himself one-on-one with the Saudi keeper, but he couldn’t force it into the back of the net, and Salah’s ball to play him through emanated from an offside position. In the end, those chances weren’t enough. In the end, Egypt’s efforts were in vain as Al-Dawsari’s last-gasp winner consigned them to elimination without so much as a point. In the end, Egypt went home empty-handed.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Saudi Arabia 1 (Al-Faraj 45+6 pen, Al-Dawsari 90+5)
Egypt 1 (Salah 22)
Referee: Wilmar Roldán (Col)
Saudi Arabia (4-5-1): Al-Mosailem – Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Motaz Hawsawi, Al-Shehrani; Bahebri (Assiri 65), Al-Faraj, Otayf, Al-Mogahwi, Al-Dawsari, Al-Muwallad (Al-Shehri 80).
Egypt (4-2-3-1): El-Hadary – Fathy, Ali Gabr, Hegazi, Abdel-Shafy; Elneny, Tarek Hamed; Said (Warda 45+7), Salah, Trézéguet (Kahraba 81); Marwan Mohsen (Ramadan Sobhi 64).

Top 5
1. Salman Al-Faraj (Saudi Arabia)
Al-Faraj was everywhere for Saudi Arabia, picking the ball up and directing Saudi Arabia’s attacking play with his drifting runs around the midfield. He made everything he did look remarkably easy with his composed movement and his excellent skills, and he bagged the crucial equaliser for the Saudis with a very calm penalty.
2. Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Salah’s brief flurry of action midway through the first half changed the course of the match and allowed him to score his second goal of the tournament. He was constantly finding ways to slip in behind the Saudi defence, and although he managed to find himself offside on a number of occasions he made enough dangerous runs to seriously test his opponents.
3. Essam El-Hadary (Egypt)
El-Hadary made history as the oldest player to feature in the World Cup finals when he took his place in goal aged 45, and he performed brilliantly on his long-awaited World Cup debut. He did well to stop Al-Muwallad’s penalty, and he made a couple of other great saves in his first – and probably last – World Cup appearance.
4. Yasser Al-Shehrani (Saudi Arabia)
Al-Shehrani’s hyper-aggressive play led to a disastrous performance in the tournament opener against Russia, where the left-back was continually caught out by the Russians. Here, his attacking play was a huge bonus for Saudi Arabia, with his pace and dangerous crosses creating plenty of issues for the Egyptian defence.
5. Motaz Hawsawi (Saudi Arabia)
Hawsawi was the third man in three games chosen to partner captain Osama Hawsawi in central defence, and he put in a very solid performance. He showed an excellent turn of speed against Egypt’s dangerous attackers, and he managed to do an admirable job battling against Salah.

Russia show they’re the real deal against overpowered Egyptians

It appears that Russia have been underestimated. They entered the World Cup as the second-worst ranked team in the tournament. They had played just three competitive games in the last two years, and their defensive situation was so dire that 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich reversed his retirement to help fill the holes in their back four. At least they were hosting the event, although it’s not clear whether they would have qualified without the automatic qualification granted to the hosts. Going in, it was easy to write them off. Now, after two comfortable victories, Russia have all but sealed their place in the knockout stages with a game to spare. When they beat Saudi Arabia, whose defence completely and utterly failed them, it wasn’t too hard to write the 5-0 victory off as a damning indictment on the insipid Saudis. When they beat Egypt, with the Pharaohs bolstered by the return of in-form attacker Mohamed Salah, there was no more writing the Russians off. They’re almost certain to get out of Group A, and coming off the high of two convincing wins they will be a very tough opponent.

All eyes were on Salah as the teams took the field. Egypt’s star winger has been the subject of much conjecture since he left the Champions League final with a shoulder injury, and there was plenty of doubt surrounding his availability for the tournament. When he sat out their tournament opener, Egypt looked devoid of any genuine attacking threat. As such, the return of the world’s most in-form forward, even at less-than-full fitness, was a massive boost for the Egyptians. Then he barely touched the ball for the first 20 minutes. It was Russia, brimming with confidence after their dominant first-up win, who dictated terms early. They came out hard and left the Egyptian defence scrambling on a number of occasions, especially when Aleksandr Golovin turned the ball over deep in attack and fired a shot just wide of Mohamed El-Shenawy’s goal.

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Mohamed Salah reacts after the final whistle. Salah came into Egypt’s team hoping to help keep their World Cup hopes alive, but his return couldn’t get them across the line.

Soon, the Egyptians had begun to settle, but neither side was ready to take the heat out of the contest. Egypt just started to provide a threat. Egyptian striker Marwan Mohsen fought hard for every ball, and Trézéguet provided a touch of class on the left wing. As Egypt grew into the contest, Salah began to find the ball at his feet more often, cutting infield and finding space to pass and shoot. Despite the pace of the game, and the fact that Russia largely had a free reign in attack down the left with Salah not performing any real defensive duties, neither side created many clear chances. As for Salah, his best moment came shortly before the break, when he turned Yuri Zhirkov and fired a left-footed shot just wide of the Russian goal. He had worked himself into the game, his blistering pace was clearly still there and it seemed like he could return to something nearing his best in the second half.

Instead, the game was all but over about 15 minutes into the second half. Russia took the lead just after the break following a series of errors. First, Mohamed El-Shenawy decided to punch Golovin’s seemingly harmless instead of catching it, giving Roman Zobnin the chance to put the ball back into the box. Then, to compound his goalkeeper’s mistake, Ahmed Fathy’s clumsy attempt to prevent the ball from reaching Russian man mountain Artem Dyuba rebounded off his knee towards the bottom corner. Ali Gabr just watched, and El-Shenawy’s dive to stop the errant challenge came too late. With Egypt needing a win to give themselves a realistic chance of progressing, Fathy’s own goal made their task a lot harder.

Then Denis Cheryshev stepped up to double the lead and send the Russian fans into raptures. Before this tournament, Cheryshev hadn’t scored at an international level, and he wasn’t expected to be a huge factor in Russia’s success. Then, coming off the bench against Saudi Arabia, he scored twice. Elevated to the starting line-up for Russia’s second game, the left winger was just as effective. When Mário Fernandes received the ball from Aleksandr Samedov inside the box and pulled it back looking for a teammate, Cheryshev was there, and open. He made no mistake.

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Artem Dzyuba (second from left) is swamped by teammates after scoring Russia’s third goal. Dzyuba’s effort put Russia 3-0 up, and gave them an unassailable lead in the match.

If Egypt had any remaining hope of salvaging a point from the game, it was extinguished a few minutes later. The play started innocuously enough, with Ilya Kutepov taking a free-kick inside Russia’s half and hacking it long towards Dzyuba at the edge of the penalty area. Dzyuba was another player who came off the bench in the tournament opener, and earned himself a start against Egypt by scoring with his first touch of the ball. Now, after receiving Kutepov’s hopeful pass forward, the striker used his giant frame to barge Ahmed Hegazi out of the way, used his surprisingly good touch to beat Gabr and fired the ball past El-Shenawy into the back of the net.

Salah managed to nab a consolation goal when he slammed a penalty past Igor Akinfeev (after he was dragged down in the box), but it was too little, too late for the Pharaohs. Russia’s three goals in 15 minutes had effectively killed off all resistance, and as the game meandered towards its inevitable conclusion it was hard to escape the thought that Russia are a lot better than their form leading in would suggest. It was hard to get a read on Russia after their first-up win over Saudi Arabia simply because the Saudis were so woeful. After repeating the feat against Egypt, it’s clear that Stanislav Cherchesov’s men are capable of making a genuine impact.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Russia 3 (Fathy 47 og, Cheryshev 59, Dzyuba 62)
Egypt 1 (Salah 73 pen)
Referee: Enrique Cáceres (Par)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov (Kudryashov 86); Gazinsky, Zobnin; Samedov, Golovin, Cheryshev (Kuzyayev 74); Dzyuba (Smolov 79).
Egypt (4-2-3-1): El-Shenawy – Fathy, Ali Gabr, Hegazi, Abdel-Shafy; Elneny (Warda 64), Tarek Hamed; Salah, Abdallah Said, Trézéguet (Ramadan Sobhi 68); Marwan Mohsen (Kahraba 82).

Top 5
1. Roman Zobnin (Russia)
Zobnin put in a huge effort all game, getting himself forward from the centre of midfield while still performing all of his essential tasks as a holding midfielder. He was the last Russian to touch the ball before Fathy put it into his own net, and he allowed Russia to take control in the middle of the park.
2. Aleksandr Samedov (Russia)
Samedov found himself on the ball in almost every Russian attack, and seemed to be at the heart of all of their dangerous moves despite not collecting a goal or an assist. His set piece delivery and vision were excellent, and he caused plenty of problems for Egypt with the ball at his feet.
3. Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Salah’s return to the Egyptian team, and his importance to the Pharaohs meant that he was destined to be the centre of attention. He took a while to get himself into the game, but when he did it was clear that his blistering pace and eye for goal was still there. He came close on a number of occasions, and he deservedly finished with a goal to his name.
4. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
After his star turn in the tournament’s first match, Golovin could have been forgiven for a slight drop in standards. Against Egypt, there was no such drop. Once again, Russia’s star attacking midfielder was everywhere, harrying the Pharaohs when they had the ball and playing with great skill when he received it himself. A class act.
5. Marwan Mohsen (Egypt)
Mohsen deserves credit for putting in a very solid performance as Egypt’s main striker. He is far from the most talented member of their attack, but he made up for it with his determination to attack the ball and his fierce presence in aerial duels. He came up with some good moments, and made a few things happen.

Uruguay do it tough, but get it done

83 minutes in, Uruguay’s first match of the World Cup wasn’t going to plan. They were being held by an Egyptian side missing talismanic attacker Mohamed Salah, and their star strike pairing of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez just wasn’t quite at their best. Then, everything clicked. Suárez was holding his ground on the edge of the box, and his headed pass reached Cavani outside the area without touching the ground. The resulting volley was flawless. It was on target, but Cavani sacrificed no power in ensuring it was bound for the goal. It was perfectly directed into the top corner. As it rocketed towards the Egyptian goal, it was clear that it was the breakthrough Uruguay were looking for.

The match had started turgidly, with both sides starting cautiously and never really taking the game on. Over 20 minutes had elapsed before Suárez missed the only clear-cut chance of the half when the ball fell at his feet following a poorly-defended corner. He hit it badly, and the ball rolled harmlessly into the side netting. For their part, Egypt were fighting hard. Captain Ahmed Fathy was in top-form at right-back, and Tarek Hamed was stifling Uruguay’s young midfield with his hard work shielding the defence.

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Mohamed El-Shenawy makes a stunning save to deny Edinson Cavani late in the game. El-Shenawy made a number of excellent saves to push Uruguay right up to the final whistle.

Uruguay were ready to take the lead with Cavani’s thunderous volley. Unfortunately, no-one let Mohamed El-Shenawy know. The Egyptian goalkeeper flung himself at the ball, and acrobatically batted the chance away. It bounced over the line for a corner, and Cavani could only shake his head in disbelief. It just wasn’t Uruguay’s day. Confirmation of that thought seemed to come minutes later, when Cavani’s hard-hit free-kick smashed into the woodwork. When Carlos Sánchez inadvertently blocked a teammate’s follow-up shot, the moment was lost. Uruguay were pushing, but the gods just weren’t smiling on them.

After a very dull first half, things began to pick up in the second. A poor piece of aerial work by Ahmed Hegazi allowed Suárez and Cavani to combine, and some quick thinking by El-Shenawy was all that prevented Uruguay from taking the lead. Egypt continued to weather the storm, however, recovering from an injury to Hamed and holding firm against a Uruguayan attack that was beginning to lose its intensity. Kahraba came off the bench and provided some pace, and along with the talented Trézéguet and the hard-working Amr Warda he began to ask questions of the Uruguayan defence. Centre-backs Diego Godín and José María Giménez were up to the task, but the game had settled into a lull and it wasn’t clear where the next goal was coming from.

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José María Giménez (second from front) scores the winner in the 89th minute. The goal capped off a late surge by the Uruguayans to end Egypt’s resistance.

Then, after a sustained assault, Egypt’s resistance came to an end. It was Sánchez who provided the delivery, swinging in a free-kick from the right and picking out his centre-backs in the middle. Godín, Uruguay’s master of late goals, was poised to take the chance. Giménez didn’t allow it to happen, rising above the rest and beating his captain to the ball. This time, the perfectly placed header found its way into the bottom corner, and El-Shenawy stood rooted to the spot. On the bench, Salah was brought to tears, but his forced inactivity meant there was nothing he could do about it. Without their star, there was nothing Egypt could do about it either.

Of course, the Pharaohs continued to push for an equaliser, hoping against hope for an avenue past the unyielding Uruguayan defence. No such opening could be found, leaving Egypt to face a Russian side brimming with confidence with a heart. They fought as hard as they could, and they pushed their opponents right to the final whistle, but Giménez’s late winner may haunt them for the rest of the tournament. For Uruguay, it was far from a perfect performance. They were pretty uninspiring for most of the game. But in the end, they won, and that’s really all that counts.

Yekaterinburg – Central Stadium
Egypt 0
Uruguay 1 (Giménez 89)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Egypt (4-2-3-1): El-Shenawy – Fathy, Ali Gabr, Hegazi, Abdel-Shafy; Tarek Hamed (Morsy 50), Elneny; Warda (Ramadan Sobhi 82), Abdallah Said, Trézéguet; Marwan Mohsen (Kahraba 63).
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Varela, Giménez, Godín, Cáceres; Nández (Sánchez 58), Vecino (Torreira 87), Bentancur, de Arrascaeta (Rodríguez 59); Suárez, Cavani.

Top 5
1. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani ensured Uruguay were always a threat, and his class within the final third sparked Uruguay’s devastating late charge to victory. He was unlucky not to score with his thunderous volley and his near-perfect free-kick, and on another day he could have had a massive impact on the scoreline. He will only improve from here.
2. Mohamed El-Shenawy (Egypt)
El-Shenawy was something of a surprise choice over veteran Essam El-Hadary, but he more than justified his selection with the game of his life in the Egyptian goal. His save to deny Cavani in the latter stages of the match was top-class, and his anticipation in cutting off Uruguayan attacks prevented a number of goals.
3. Diego Godín (Uruguay)
Godín showed all of his experience in central defence, and worked brilliantly with Giménez to form an impenetrable wall in front of keeper Fernando Muslera. He thwarted plenty of Egyptian attacks, and could well have scored had his central defensive partner not stolen the moment from him. He was as consistent as ever.
4. Ahmed Fathy (Egypt)
Given the captaincy for Egypt’s first World Cup match since 1990, Fathy didn’t disappoint and put in a brilliant performance at right-back. His defensive work was clean and his ability to impact the game all over the ground was a testament to the effort he put in. He was a very calm presence, and was a thorn in Uruguay’s side throughout.
5. Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
Suárez wasn’t quite in top form, and he missed a number of very gettable chances, but he made himself a nuisance for the Egyptian defence all day. His positioning was excellent, and the improvement in his combination with Cavani as the game progressed bodes well for the rest of the tournament. If he starts taking chances, his opponents will be in trouble.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group A

Group A

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Russia (70), Saudi Arabia (67), Egypt (45), Uruguay (14)
Fixtures:
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

Russia

Head Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov
Captain: Igor Akinfeev
Previous Appearances: 3 (1994, 2002, 2014)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1994, 2002, 2014)
Qualified: Hosts
Qualification Top Scorer: N/A

Squad

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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Saudi Arabia

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)

Squad

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).

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Egypt

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)

Squad

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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Uruguay

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)

Squad

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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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.

Prediction

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.