Spain control the ball, but Russia hold on for shock win from the spot

Marco Asensio and Koke prepared to deliver the free-kick. Spain had won the kick on the right wing after Russian left-back Yuri Zhirkov clattered into Spanish right-back, and after dominating possession it presented them with their best chance of turning their control of the match into an early lead. Asensio, starting in place of decorated midfielder Andrés Iniesta, was the man who stepped up to take the free-kick. The 22-year-old languidly approached the ball and gracefully delivered the ball towards the back post, where pugilistic Spanish captain Sergio Ramos was entangled with Sergei Ignashevich. It was a bizarre scene. Ignashevich wasn’t watching the ball, instead gripping Ramos in a bear hug and tackling him to the ground. He wasn’t watching the ball when it reached the pair, and Ramos desperately tried to get a boot on it. He didn’t. Instead, the ball bounced of Ignashevich’s calf, looping past Igor Akinfeev and putting Spain in the lead. With just over 10 minutes gone, Spain were in control.

Iago Aspas approached the penalty spot. He needed to score to keep Spain in the competition. He ran up to the ball, and lashed his penalty straight down the middle. Akinfeev saved it. The Russian captain kept the penalty out and it flew away harmlessly, confirming Spain’s elimination on penalties and sending the Russian fans into raptures. Akinfeev, so calm during the shootout, celebrated loudly as he was embraced by his euphoric teammates. Spain, defeated in a match they had controlled from start to finish, could only stand disconsolately, wondering what had gone wrong. Ignashevich’s own goal, and Spain’s celebrations, were in the distant past. It didn’t feel like it had happened in the same game. The weather wasn’t even the same, with the sun that had greeted the beginning of the match giving way to pouring rain as the match progressed to a famous Russian victory.

After the goal, such an end was inconceivable. Spain weren’t really penetrating the Russian defence, but Russia weren’t even touching the ball, let alone threatening the Spanish. Spain just passed. And passed. And passed a little more. The centre-backs got plenty of the ball, as did Koke and Sergio Busquets in holding midfield. Occasionally, they saw fit to distribute the ball into a more threatening position. Such occasions were rare. Then, as so often happens, Russia’s one real piece of attacking play provided the equaliser. In a sign of what was to come, they scored from a penalty. It started with a corner, as Artem Dzyuba got his head to Aleksandr Samedov’s delivery and knocked it into Gerard Piqué’s raised arm. No amount of protesting could convince Björn Kuipers to reverse his decision, and Dzyuba stepped up to confidently drill the penalty past David de Gea. Dzyuba ran towards the corner in a slightly confused but passionate celebration, running with his arms outstretched before slapping his chest a few times, jumping and punching the air in front of him and, finally, standing to attention. At least the sentiment was clear.

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Igor Akinfeev celebrates after saving Iago Aspas’ penalty to confirm Russia’s win in the shootout. Akinfeev led from the front, saving two penalties as Russia claimed a famous victory.

Now needing to score another goal to get the win, Spain reverted back to their modus operandi: pass, pass and pass some more. They started to move the ball forward with slightly more intensity as the half drew to a close, with Diego Costa coming particularly close when he got on the end of a neat through ball and tested Akinfeev from close range. It came to nothing. Then, after half time, the intensity seemed to disappear. Spain passed, a lot, but never really made headway against Russia’s determined five-man defence. They didn’t seem to have enough urgency to break them down.

Spain’s play became an endless cycle of harmless backwards and sideways passes, which weren’t even played at enough speed to move the Russian defence from side to side. Russia did some running, but they never really had to exert themselves in defending Spain’s attacks. Iniesta came on and threatened to make something happen, playing a quick one-two to run into the box but failing to control the ball at the decisive moment. Russia cleared the ball away, Piqué received the ball uncontested, and the cycle of sideways and backwards passes started again. Jordi Alba played a little lofted pass for Isco, but it was cleared away for a throw-in. The cycle started again. Isco and Iniesta found the ball in the box, but they got in a tangle and the Russians got it away. Eventually their rather toothless-looking counter-attack failed, and the cycle started again. Spain won a corner and looked slightly dangerous, but Russia eventually cleared. Dani Carvajal threw the ball all the way back to Piqué, and the cycle started again.

Spain started to lift their intensity, and there were a few good attacks, but the cycle continued. Iniesta forced Akinfeev into a diving save after receiving the ball just outside the area, and Iago Aspas nearly converted from the rebound. Russia cleared, and the cycle started again. Russia nearly had a chance when Ramos made a rare error in position and a number of slips granted Golovin the ball in a dangerous position. They conceded a free-kick, and the cycle started again. Spain won a free-kick and three consecutive corners, but Russia continued to rebuff them and eventually Ramos headed over the bar. The cycle started again. Fittingly, Spain were passing the ball sideways when the whistle blew to signify the end of the first 90 minutes.

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Andrés Iniesta (front) controls the ball under pressure from Roman Zobnin. Iniesta had an impact after entering the game, making Spain look more dangerous with his runs into pockets of space.

Spain began extra time with more urgency, with Isco heavily involved and slipping a nice pass through for Carvajal shortly after play resumed. They continued to pass the ball around without allowing Russia time on the ball, but suddenly they were pushing up towards the edge of the penalty area, allowing them to win the ball in more advanced positions. Russia still held firm, though, and they didn’t look like being breached despite Spain’s slightly more adventurous attacking play. At one point Aspas slipped over on the edge of the area, and Isco cannoned straight into his back. Both fell over. It just wasn’t happening for Spain. For the first time in the match, Spain had the space and, more importantly, the will to mount a genuine counter-attack, and Iniesta’s pass found Aspas in space. Unfortunately for the Spanish, Aspas was fighting a losing battle as he took on the entire Russian defence with no support. His shot was eventually blocked.

Spain continued to control possession, but their risk-averse approach seemed to give them little chance of scoring. Rodrigo, Spain’s fourth substitute (in the first World Cup game to involve a fourth substitution in extra time), nearly made something happen when he forced Akinfeev into a save and Spain picked up the rebound, but Russia managed to survive. Iniesta continued to threaten, but Russia continued to survive. Russia had a nervous moment when Koke’s free-kick contributed to all sorts of tangles in the box and the video assistant referee began checking for a penalty, but no evidence of illegal defending was found. Eventually, after more than two hours of Spain’s ceaseless passing, Kuipers blew the whistle to signify the end of regular play, and to signify the beginning of the ultimate tiebreaker, the dreaded penalty shootout.

Iniesta stepped up first, stroking the ball past Akinfeev very calmly. Fyodor Smolov drilled his penalty past de Gea. Piqué flicked the ball nonchalantly into his hands as he walked up to take the penalty, and he showed his coolness with a brilliant finish. Ignashevich was next, chipping it past de Gea and expressionlessly turning on his heel and walking back to the centre. Then came Koke. Koke strolled up to the spot, and drilled it to the left. Akinfeev went the same way, parrying the kick and sending the home crowd into raptures as Koke pulled his shirt up to cover his face. He looked as though he was hoping the turf would swallow him up. Suddenly, Spain were behind. Golovin didn’t miss for Russia. Neither did Ramos, who took a meandering approach to the spot and sent Akinfeev in the wrong direction. De Gea needed a save. Denis Cheryshev, who has spent all of his professional career playing in Spain, didn’t allow that to happen. Time was running out, and Spain only had one more kick to get themselves back in the shootout. Aspas missed it, and it was all over. Spain’s turbulent and underwhelming campaign ended on penalties, and Russia’s dream run in front of their home fans continued. The Spanish had no answer as they tried to subject Russia to death by a thousand cuts. In the end, the only team harmed by Spain’s monopolisation of possession seemed to be the Spanish themselves.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Spain 1 (Ignashevich 12 og)
Russia 1 (Dzyuba 41 pen) (a.e.t, Russia won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Nacho (Carvajal 70), Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Koke, Busquets; Silva (Iniesta 67), Isco, Asensio (Rodrigo 104); Diego Costa (Iago Aspas 80).
Russia (5-3-2): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov, Zhirkov (Granat 46); Samedov (Cheryshev 61), Zobnin, Kuzyayev (Yerokhin 97); Dzyuba (Smolov 65), Golovin.

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Rodrigo (centre) is denied by Igor Akinfeev (left) during extra time. The save was one of Akinfeev’s best, and was a highlight of a performance capped off by his penalty shootout heroics.

Top 5
1. Igor Akinfeev (Russia)
Considering Spain’s dominance of possession, Akinfeev had surprisingly little to do, but he was always there when Russia needed him. He made some nice saves, and he showed his experience in the penalty shootout by coming up with a pair of excellent saves and sending his side through.
2. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
When Spain conduct the inquiry into how their round of 16 exit came to be, Fernando Hierro’s decision to remove Iniesta from the starting line-up will come in for immense scrutiny. When he came on, the 34-year-old provided an energy his teammates lacked, and he looked like Spain’s best chance of breaking through. He showed his experience by neatly slotting home his penalty.
3. Isco (Spain)
Isco was everywhere, popping up all over the field and playing some neat passes as he tried to breach the Russian defence with dynamism and flair. He was involved in almost all of Spain’s attacks, and his through passes were more incisive than most. He has a big future, and although he wasn’t at his most fluent he had a big impact.
4. Sergio Ramos (Spain)
Ramos seemed to find the ball more than any of his teammates, and he had an impact with his experience and threat at set pieces. His work on the end of Asensio’s free-kick allowed Spain to go ahead early, and his defensive work was always solid. He was one of the experienced Spanish players who converted in the shootout.
5. Ilya Kutepov (Russia)
Kutepov did some good defensive work as part of Russia’s back five, keeping Spain out on a few occasions with blocks and clearances and generally looking solid. With most of Spain’s play focusing on Kutepov’s side of the field, he held up well and wasn’t really beaten throughout the 120 minutes.

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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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group B

PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)

Manager: Phillip Cocu
Captain: Luuk de Jong
Ground: Philips Stadion, Eindhoven
Qualified: Eredivisie, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1987-88)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

After a disappointing 2013-14 season, PSV bounced back in 2014-15, winning the league by a comfortable margin of 17 points over Ajax. They dominated the league, with one draw and 4 losses the only blips on a near perfect campaign. They have had some fairly large losses over the summer, most prominent that of Memphis Depay to Manchester United, but they should do well.

Strengths

PSV blitzed the league last season, and after they took first place (two rounds into the season) they did not let it go, comfortably taking first place. The side fired in attack as well, Depay and Luuk de Jong scoring 42 times between them. Depay is now gone, but players like Maxime Lestienne, Luciano Narsingh and Florian Jozefzoon have the potential to replace him. PSV have a lot of depth down back, with Jetro Willems, Jeffrey Bruma, Joshua Brenet, Santiago Arias, Simon Poulsen, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and Hector Moreno all competing for spots. Andres Guardado, Davy Propper, Stijn Schaars and Adam Maher are strong players through the middle, and Jeroen Zoet is solid in goal.

Weaknesses

PSV have lost big players over the off-season in Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum, who contributed 36 goals to the side last season. That they will have to face Manchester United and with it their former star Depay adds insult to injury. The side still lacks a lot of experience, with most of the players fairly young. Luuk de Jong, the captain, is still only 25, and he will also shoulder much of the responsibility for replacing the goals scored by Memphis. Their will also be added pressure on the other young forwards, with Narsingh (24), and Lestienne (23) needing to find the back of the net. PSV will be in for a tough challenge, and it will be interesting to see how they fare.

Star Player: Luuk de Jong

The captain, first-choice striker and one of the most experienced players on the team (at just 25), de Jong is very important for PSV. He has scored 4 times in 5 games this season in all competitions, and Phillip Cocu is relying on him to continue. He has had experience playing in England and Germany, and this will help him during the tournament.

Key Player: Andres Guardado

Guardado is a very experienced player, and he brings that to a young team. He has experience playing in Spain and Germany, which will be helpful. At age 28, he is one of the oldest members of the side, and he will need to use that experience to take control of the midfield. As such, he is a key member of the side, and if PSV are going to do well he needs to play well.

Manchester United FC (England)

Manager: Louis van Gaal
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Ground: Old Trafford, Manchester
Qualified: Premier League, 4th (defeated Club Brugge KV in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1967-68, 1998-99, 2007-08)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

It has been a tumultuous couple of years for Manchester United. After the retirement of Alex Ferguson as manager David Moyes could not control the club, who plummeted from 1st to 7th in a season. He was sacked after 10 months in the job, and United hired Louis van Gaal. His reign started badly as well, but he recovered to take out fourth. A comfortable 7-1 aggregate win over Club Brugge was enough to send them through.

Strengths

Manchester United have spent big money on compiling a very strong team. Sergio Romero and David de Gea will compete for the top goalkeeping slot, although the fact that the latter has not played for the side this season suggests Romero will stay in goal. The back four is Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw, and van Gaal has Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo there as well. They have only conceded twice this season, and big signings Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial will bolster an attack containing Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, while the midfield contains the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini.

Weaknesses

While the side has been good defensively, their attack, while good on paper, has been found wanting. Depay gave glimpses of his best in the first leg against Club Brugge, scoring twice and setting up Fellaini, but he is still goalless in the league. Overall, van Gaal’s men have scored just 3 goals, with one of them an own goal by Kyle Walker. The Red Devils will hope that the latest signing, Martial, can change things and start scoring, but he is only 19, and too much pressure cannot possibly be a good thing. The other teams in this group have solid defences, and so if Manchester United cannot find some penetration soon they could miss out on the knockout rounds.

Star Player: Wayne Rooney

Rooney has played 344 league matches since joining Manchester United in 2004 aged 18. Back then he was worth 25.6 million pounds, and he has justified that sum since joining. He has been one of England’s best players, and has had incredible success with United, winning 5 Premier League titles alongside the Champions League, the League Cup (twice) and the Club World Cup.

Key Player: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Schweinsteiger was signed for big money from Bayern Munich over the summer, and he will be hoping to add a second Champions League trophy to his cabinet. He will play a key role as the most experienced player in the centre of midfield, and will need to provide solidity, while United will hope that he can be a helpful source of goals.

PFC CSKA Moscow (Russia)

Manager: Leonid Slutsky
Captain: Igor Akinfeev
Ground: Arena Khimki, Moscow
Qualified: Russian Premier League, 2nd (defeated AC Sparta Praha and Sporting CP in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

CSKA were edged out by 7 points in the league last season, although they in turn snuck over FC Krasnodar on goal difference. As a result the side had to go through qualifying, where they pulled off a brilliant comeback in Prague to progress to the play-offs and a date with Sporting. Bryan Ruiz and Islam Slimani gave the Portuguese the advantage, but Seydou Doumbia scored twice in Moscow to send CSKA through. They will hope for a better effort in the Champions League this time round after crashing out in last season’s group stage.

Strengths

The CSKA defence is one of the strongest in Europe, with Sergei Ignashevich, Vasili Berezutski, Georgi Schennikov and Mario Fernandes providing support for captain Igor Akinfeev in goal. Finnish attacking midfielder Roman Eremenko scored plenty of goals last year, but with Seydou Doumbia returning on loan from AS Roma most of the goals should come from the Ivorian and pacy Nigerian winger Ahmed Musa. That pair contributed 6 out of the 9 goals the Muscovites scored in qualifying, and if Alan Dzagoev, Zoran Tosic, Pontus Wernbloom and Bibras Natkho can chip in then CSKA stand a great chance of making it through a tough group and into the knockout stages.

Weaknesses

CSKA have played frequently in Europe over the last few seasons, but they have struggled to really make their mark upon the competition. The side has barely changed, and they are taking on a group containing teams from larger leagues with much better competition. The defence is strong, but questions remain about Wernbloom and Natkho, especially given the lack of high level football the latter has had. Both are essentially defensive midfielders, and that could lead to poor links between attack and defence. Doumbia has been successful with CSKA before, and they will be happy to have him back, but his unsuccessful spell at Roma could have sapped some of his previous confidence.

Star Player: Seydou Doumbia

After starting his career in Japan and then with BSC Young Boys in Switzerland, Doumbia has enjoyed great success in Russia with CSKA. He has won two Russian Premier League titles and played 95 matches for 61 goals. Now returning on loan after 6 months playing in Italy with Roma, Doumbia has started well with CSKA and they will be hoping this form continues.

Key Player: Igor Akinfeev

Akinfeev broke into the CSKA starting line-up at just 17, and has played 317 times for the club since then. During that time he has been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Russian League, having never conceded more than 30 times in the one season. He has vast Champions League experience, and will be invaluable to CSKA as they look to progress.

VfL Wolfsburg (Germany)

Head Coach: Dieter Hecking
Captain: Diego Benaglio
Ground: Volkswagen Arena, Wolfsburg
Qualified: Bundesliga, 2nd
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (2009-10)
2014-15 Champions League: Did not qualify

Form Guide

After years of poor performance in the league Wolfsburg bounced back in 2014-15, finishing second in the Bundesliga. After a rocky start they quickly rose up the table, and were part of a top two with Bayern Munich that did not change for 25 straight games. They managed to edge out Borussia Monchengladbach by three points to qualify for the first time since winning the league in 2008-09 under the guidance of Felix Magath.

Strengths

Wolfsburg have a very strong side, and have made some very good transactions over the off season, picking up Max Kruse from Monchengladbach and Dante from Bayern. Kruse will help Bas Dost and Nicklas Bendtner in attack, as well as Andre Schurrle, purchased last season from Chelsea. Down back, Dante and Naldo should form an excellent partnership in the centre of defence, and Ricardo Rodriguez should add plenty to the team from left back. In goal, Diego Benaglio is the captain of the side and is one of the best keepers in the world. New signing Julian Draxler will bolster the side in behind the strikers, joining Vierinha, Daniel Caligiuri, Schurrle and Maximilian Arnold, and Luiz Gustavo and Josuha Guilavogui patrol the area in front of the defence.

Weaknesses

Wolfsburg may be strong, but the sale of Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City is going to be very hard to get over. The Belgian starred in the Bundesliga last season and was crowned German footballer of the year for his efforts which included a league-best 21 assists. Draxler is a potential replacement, as is Arnold, but Wolfsburg will struggle to find a player of de Bruyne’s calibre again, although the reported transfer fee of 75 million euros will come in handy. As a result of European inactivity many players in the current squad have not had experience playing in the Champions League, and this could prove to be a handicap.

Star Player: Bas Dost

With 16 league goals last season, Dost was one of the league’s top scorers, and this time around he has already found the net twice in three games. With Max Kruse slotting in behind him he is the main source of goals for Wolfsburg, and his form for the side has given him two caps for the Netherlands. Wolfsburg will be hoping that he can find the net against stronger opponents.

Key Player: Diego Benaglio

The Swiss keeper is the captain of the team and has been capped 224 times for Die Wolfe, having been at the club since 2008. He performed well at the World Cup despite letting in five goals against France, and he will be essential to Wolfsburg’s first tilt at the Champions League since 2009. If he can keep clean sheets and the defence fire then Wolfsburg have a potent enough attack to progress.

Prediction

This group will be very tight, as all four sides look very strong on paper. Manchester United should go through with their star-studded side, and I would expect the main battle to be for second place. Wolfsburg look to have the strongest team of the three, and they should be able to cope without de Bruyne. PSV should take third, as I see no reason why CSKA should do any better than in past years even with a strong side on paper.
Prediction: 1. Manchester United, 2. Wolfsburg, 3. PSV Eindhoven, 4. CSKA Moscow.