One-legged Subašić breaks Russian hearts

It all came down to one kick. Ivan Rakitić was attempting to put his penalty into the back of the net to send Croatia into the World Cup’s last four. Igor Akinfeev was the man tasked with barring his way and keeping Russia’s World Cup dreams alive. On the halfway line, Croatia’s players were waiting, preparing to burst into celebration but not willing to move in case Rakitić failed to convert. Next to them, Russia’s players watched helplessly, knowing that their World Cup could be over any second. On the sideline, Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić sat alone, not even daring to watch Rakitić’s kick. In the stands, the parochial Russian crowd watched and prayed. Rakitić slotted the penalty, and the host nation’s luck finally ran out. Croatia were ecstatic, Russia heartbroken.

In the end, it was Danijel Subašić who made the difference with a heroic performance. Subašić had been the hero in Croatia’s round of 16 penalty shootout win, saving three penalties and ensuring a talented Croatian team’s progress to the last eight. Like the round of 16 clash with Denmark, his night started pretty uneventfully, with Russia generally sitting back and not giving him too much work to do.

Russia settled into the match quicker than their opponents, but they didn’t create any real chances and Croatia quickly retook the ascendency after overcoming their early nerves. Once they had control, they found it easy enough to keep it. On the right wing, Ante Rebić was causing problems with his size and pace, and right-back Šime Vrsaljko was also looking threatening when he forayed into the attacking third. Mario Mandžukić was looking threatening as crosses came to him inside the box, and Luka Modrić was pulling the strings from deep in midfield. Russia half-threatened on a couple of counter-attacks, but Croatia were dictating the tempo of the game. Then the hosts scored.

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Denis Cheryshev (centre) scores Russia’s opening goal from outside the box. Cheryshev’s strike was unstoppable, and it put Croatia under pressure.

It came from one moment of breathtaking individual brilliance. There hadn’t been too many chances in the preceding minutes, with the action slowing and the game settling into something of a lull. Then Denis Cheryshev received the ball just inside his attacking half. Through congestion, he controlled the ball and laid it off to giant striker Artem Dzyuba. Dzyuba managed to lay off a return pass, but Cheryshev was still a long way away. Modrić slid, but he couldn’t stop Cheryshev’s first touch from sending the dynamic winger into space. Domagoj Vida attempted to block Cheryshev’s path, but he couldn’t stop Russia’s in-form attacker from lashing a shot towards goal. Subašić was on the scene, but the Croatian goalkeeper was unable to intervene as the ball curved into the back of the net. The spectacular strike sent the home crowd into raptures, and it gave Russia’s confidence a massive boost. Suddenly, Croatia needed to respond. A few minutes later, respond they did.

Croatia found some space, and they scored. It was that simple. Mario Mandžukić found himself in behind the Russian defence thanks to a clever pass from Ivan Perišić, and he charged into the box facing little resistance. Eventually Ilya Kutepov came to meet him, but the damage was already done as Mandžukić’s cross found Andrej Kramarić in the centre. The Russian defence was too stretched to stop him as he headed the ball into the bottom corner. It was a simple, well-executed goal, and it put Croatia back on level terms.

Croatia continued to attack as the second half began, and they put Russia under pressure with a few attempts. Kramarić was particularly lively as he aimed to add to his earlier goal, finding the ball inside the box and at one point he unleashed a bicycle kick. There was chaos in the box when Kramarić athletically pulled a wayward ball into the box back into a dangerous spot, and Perišić received the ball in space. He wasn’t far out, and his shot looked destined for the back of the net even when it hit the inside of the post. It bounced out and rolled across goal, and Russia breathed a big sigh of relief.

After Perišić’s very near miss, the chances dried up. Croatia were still the better side, but they couldn’t breach the Russian defence and didn’t really threaten. Occasionally the ball pinballed around the Russian penalty area, but Croatia never got a clear chance out of it. Then, with only a few minutes of normal time remaining, Subašić became the centre of attention.

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Domagoj Vida (right) is tackled by Dejan Lovren after putting Croatia ahead in the 101st minute. Vida was booked for removing his shirt, but he didn’t seem too concerned by the caution.

His night hadn’t been particularly busy, with Russia never really forcing him into too much action. Then he raced to prevent a deflected cross from running out for a corner, and the game changed dramatically. Subašić got there, prevented the ball from going out, and then slapped the ground in pain. He seemed to have injured his hamstring, and as he lay on the ground receiving treatment it seemed as if his night was over. Unfortunately for Croatia, all their substitutions were used. Subašić couldn’t come off, and they needed to carry him through until extra time, when the option of a fourth change would materialise.

Croatia protected him well during injury time. They mostly kept the ball, with the only nervous moment coming when Fyodor Smolov decided to test the goalkeeper out from an acute angle. He was in position, and he made the save. When extra time came around, Subašić received extra attention, but it seemed likely that he would be substituted. Dominik Livaković had been warming up, and he seemed likely to fill the void in the final 30 minutes of the match.

Livaković never appeared. Instead, Subašić battled on, going out for extra time with the rest of his team. The last substitution was made shortly after extra time began, when Vrsaljko pulled up awkwardly and required a replacement. Subašić was on his own. Russia looked the more dangerous team, especially when Dejan Lovren inadvertently played Smolov through. Lovren recovered well, but the warning was clear. Then Croatia scored, and seemingly sealed the deal.

The goal originated from a well-delivered corner. Modrić’s delivery eluded Mandžukić and Sergei Ignashevich as they launched themselves at the ball, and Vida was waiting unmarked behind them. The Croatian centre-back (who became a makeshift right-back after Vrsaljko’s injury) headed it goalward. It wasn’t a brilliant header, or unstoppable by any means. Somehow, it evaded the defenders who were standing in its path, and Akinfeev stood rooted to the spot as it slowly trickled into the back of the net. Vida celebrated with understandable excitement, as a pile of Croatian players formed near the corner flag. Meanwhile, referee Sandro Ricci waited awkwardly on the edge of the celebratory scrum, waiting for the pack to dissipate so that Vida could be booked for removing his shirt. He didn’t care too much about the yellow.

Russia didn’t give up, and they kept fighting for the equaliser. At that point Subašić came into his own. He was still operating on one leg, and he was severely compromised, but he continued to throw himself around to deny the Russians. As the first period of extra time came to a close, he was brought to ground after jumping into a pack to catch a free-kick. He looked to have done further damage, but he had to continue anyway. In the second period, the intensity ramped up. Subašić punched a corner away, but Daler Kuzyayev found the rebound and somehow found himself thwarted by the Croatian goalkeeper’s follow-up save. Subašić threw himself at Smolov’s cross to bat it away. Then, after pushing for some time, Russia beat the wounded goalkeeper.

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Croatian players celebrate after their victory in the penalty shootout. It was their second win on penalties in two games, making them the second team to win consecutive World Cup shootouts and booking their first semi-final since 1998.

It started with Josip Pivarić, whose bone-headed handball on the edge of the box gave Russia a free-kick in a very dangerous position. The kick was well delivered by Alan Dzagoev, who was making his first appearance since his injury in the opening game of the tournament, and Mário Fernandes was in a perfect position to get his head on it. He diverted the header into the bottom corner, leaving Subašić with no chance of making the stop. The Croatian keeper was forced into one more save late in extra time, keeping the scores level with a diving stop despite his injury, but Russia couldn’t get the goal to go ahead. After 120 gripping, drama-filled minutes, the two teams would have to be split on penalties.

Russia seemed to hold all the cards. Kicking first, Smolov stepped up to the spot to face Subašić. Seemingly compensating for his injury, the goalkeeper bounced around on the goal line energetically as Smolov approached the ball. It’s hard to say how much of an impact the hopping on the spot had, but Subašić made the save, throwing himself the right way and contemptuously batting away Smolov’s ill-advised attempt to chip him. Marcelo Brozović scored, and Croatia were ahead. Then, after Dzagoev put his penalty away, Akinfeev levelled it up for Russia. He dived the right way, and Mateo Kovačić’s penalty was denied. The teams were back on level terms, and it wasn’t clear which goalkeeper could repeat the feat.

Subašić didn’t have to. Fernandes stepped up with the scores level, and missed the target altogether. Suddenly, Croatia had the advantage once more, even though Subašić didn’t move a muscle. Then, Akinfeev saved Modrić’s penalty. Or so all involved thought. Akinfeev guessed right, and got a solid enough hand on the ball to divert it into the post. It should have bounced out. To all intents and purposes, it seemed to have bounced out. Then it appeared in the back of the net, on the other side of the goal. Modrić had scored – just. Ignashevich scored, but it didn’t really matter. Russia needed a save for any of their goals to mean a thing. Akinfeev couldn’t save Vida’s penalty. Subašić couldn’t stop Kuzyayev’s either, leaving Rakitić with the unenviable task of taking the high-pressure kick. It was the second such penalty he had taken at this tournament, and he did it with aplomb. They did it tough, but Croatia went through. That’s all they can ask for.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115)
Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov; Zobnin, Kuzyayev; Samedov (Yerokhin 54), Golovin (Dzagoev 102), Cheryshev (Smolov 67); Dzyuba (Gazinsky 79).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 74); Rakitić, Modrić; Rebić, Kramarić (Kovačić 88), Perišić (Brozović 63); Mandžukić.

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Danijel Subašić and Ivan Rakitić celebrate after Rakitić’s winning penalty. Subašić battled through a painful injury to play out the match and save a penalty in the shootout.

Top 5
1. Danijel Subašić (Croatia)
Subašić’s game looked over when he started slapping the ground and clutching his hamstring. Instead, his best moments were only just beginning. He battled through extra time, making a number of good saves in the process, and his heroics in the shootout once again saw Croatia claim victory. He will be a big loss if he’s unavailable for the semi-final.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić wasn’t at his best against Denmark, but he proved that he doesn’t play consecutive bad games (or bad games at all, all things considered) with a brilliant performance. He worked hard and played plenty of incisive passes, and his set piece delivery was what gave Croatia a late lead.
3. Mário Fernandes (Russia)
It’s hard to imagine how Mário Fernandes is feeling right about now. He scored his first goal in Russian colours to give the hosts a lifeline, and then watched in horror as his missed penalty extinguished that hope. His elation and subsequent despair aside, Fernandes played a brilliant game at right-back. He got forward well, and he acquitted himself well defensively too.
4. Andrej Kramarić (Croatia)
Kramarić put Croatia back on track with his goal shortly before half time, and he justified his inclusion in the starting line-up with a strong performance. He created plenty of chances with his excellent positioning and ability to find the ball in the final third, and he could have easily added to his goal-scoring tally.
5. Denis Cheryshev (Russia)
Cheryshev has been in brilliant form since coming on as an early substitute in the opening match of the tournament, and he netted one of the best goals of this World Cup to put Russia ahead. He looked ominous when he found space on the break, and a fourth goal in five matches was a fitting reward for his efforts.

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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.

Russia receive a reality check as Uruguay win effortlessly

It’s hard to pick the moment where it all fell apart. Russia came into their match against Uruguay with plenty of reason for optimism. Buoyed by their vocal home crowds, their heavily-criticised team had looked like world beaters in their first two matches, scoring eight goals, conceding just one and sealing their qualification for the round of 16 with a game to spare. Uruguay, on the other hand, hadn’t looked particularly fluent despite winning both of their opening two games and confirming their safe passage from the group alongside Russia. The Russians, with all their confidence, looked ideally placed to upset Uruguay and take out first place in the group. By half time, they had received a sobering reality check. 2-0 down, and reduced to ten men, Russia’s bubble had burst in extraordinary fashion. Where did it all go wrong?

Did it fall apart with the first goal, aided and abetted by a horrendous pass? Aleksandr Samedov’s errant ball missed its target completely, and Luis Suárez ran onto it in plenty of space. Ilya Kutepov stopped Suárez’s pass to Edinson Cavani from finding its target, but the rebound was collected by Rodrigo Bentancur on the edge of the box. Yury Gazinsky stopped Bentancur through less legal means than those Kutepov had used seconds earlier, taking his legs out, earning himself a yellow card and granting Uruguay a free-kick right on the edge of the area. Suárez made no mistake. Igor Akinfeev, expecting the ball to fly over his carefully set-up wall, was caught off-guard and flat-footed when Suárez aimed for the other side of the goal, and he couldn’t lay a hand on the ball as it slipped past him into the bottom corner. Uruguay’s opener, coming just 10 minutes in, put the Russians on the back foot, and they never really recovered.

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Diego Godín (front) competes for the ball with Artem Dzyuba. Despite being smaller than his opponent, Godín managed to shut Dzyuba down with his vast experience.

Was it the second goal, stemming from an unfortunate concoction of bad timing and bad luck, which really brought the Russian bandwagon to a screaming halt? Russia fought hard in the minutes after going behind, with giant striker Artem Dzyuba having an impact and Denis Cheryshev nearly scoring with a well-hit shot that Fernando Muslera couldn’t quite control. Diego Godín, Uruguay’s defensive rock, just stopped Cheryshev from getting the rebound. Then Uruguay doubled their advantage. Lucas Torreira’s corner was headed away, and Diego Laxalt took on an ambitious shot from well outside the area. He shouldn’t have had a prayer. Then Cheryshev, who had scored three goals in two games and been the surprise hero of Russia’s tournament, attempted to charge the shot down, and the results were disastrous. The ball ricocheted towards the bottom corner, and Akinfeev couldn’t recover in time to stop it. Cheryshev’s own goal completely derailed the Russians, and Uruguay nearly scored again minutes later when Bentancur turned the ball over in the Uruguayan attacking third. Luckily for Russia, Akinfeev saved it, and Roman Zobnin was there to stop Cavani from scoring the follow-up effort.

Was it the red card, given to Igor Smolnikov 10 minutes before the break, which really came to represent Russia’s woes? Smolnikov was only in the team as a replacement for the rested Mário Fernandes, and it’s fair to say he didn’t have his best game. He had already received a booking after clattering into Cavani, but when Laxalt started racing down the wing he slid in without any thought for the consequences. Laxalt’s legs were taken out from under him, and Malang Diedhiou had no choice but to send Smolnikov packing. The only delay came as the referee fumbled in his back pocket to locate the red card. A man down, and with their confidence already shot, the Russians were well on the road to a humbling defeat.

The second half wasn’t particularly exciting, but there were moments which represented Russia’s slide. There was Dzyuba’s poor effort after some woeful Uruguayan passing in the defensive third gave them an opening. There was Kutepov’s muffed clearance, which flew out of bounds barely five metres away from where he’d kicked it. There was Kutepov’s pinpoint pass to Cavani, with the Russian centre-back splitting the middle of two of his teammates to gift possession to Uruguay in a dangerous position. To cap it all off, Uruguay scored another with less than a minute of normal time remaining. Akinfeev parried Godín’s powerful header as the centre-back rose to meet Torreira’s corner, and was left helpless as Cavani bundled the rebound in. It said a lot for Russia’s limp defence that Suárez, looking for a second goal, was the only player competing with Cavani for the ball. As the game wound down, there was a cruel irony to be found in the fact that the Cosmos Arena, designed to pay homage to Russia’s history of space exploration, was the venue where the Russians came crashing back down to earth.

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Edinson Cavani wheels away in celebration after scoring Uruguay’s third goal late. Cavani worked hard all day, and the goal was a fitting reward for his efforts.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Uruguay 3 (Suárez 10, Cheryshev 23 og, Cavani 90)
Russia 0
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Sen)
Uruguay (3-5-2): Muslera – Coates, Godín, Cáceres; Nández (Rodríguez 73), Vecino, Torreira, Bentancur (de Arrascaeta 63), Laxalt; Suárez, Cavani (Gómez 90+3).
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Smolnikov, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov; Gazinsky (Kuzyayev 46), Zobnin; Samedov, Aleksei Miranchuk (Smolov 60), Cheryshev (Mário Fernandes 38); Dzyuba.
Sent-off: Smolnikov 36

Top 5
1. Rodrigo Bentancur (Uruguay)
Bentancur played very well in a more advanced midfield role, working hard to challenge the Russians when they had the ball and creating opportunities with his strength and skill. He won the free-kick which led to Suárez’s goal, and he was instrumental in a few dangerous pieces of attacking play.
2. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani became increasingly determined to get himself a goal as the game went on, and his work never dropped off as a result. He got his goal in the end, tapping in a header from very close range, and it was a deserved reward for an excellent performance which heaped plenty of pressure on the Russian defence.
3. Diego Godín (Uruguay)
Godín was another Uruguayan whose effort never faltered, battling hard to repress the dangerous Dzyuba. Despite giving up a size disadvantage against the massive Russian striker he came out on top in most of their physical duels, and he even managed to play a key role in Uruguay’s final goal with the game winding down.
4. Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
Suárez scored his second goal of the tournament with a brilliantly-taken free-kick, and he was a dangerous attacking presence throughout the game. His positioning was as good as ever, and his combination with Cavani is becoming more fluent with every game.
5. Sergei Ignashevich (Russia)
In the first game where Russia’s much-questioned defence has been tested Ignashevich stood much taller than the rest. He made some excellent challenges to deny the Uruguayans, and more than justified the decision to bring him back from international retirement for this tournament.

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.

Green Falcons winged as Russia romp to victory

The game was over, and had been for a long time, when the free-kick was paid. Saudi Arabia’s Taisir Al-Jassim was just a little rough with Aleksandr Golovin on the edge of the box, and as a result Russia’s bright young star was standing over the ball to take the last kick of the game. With it, he nonchalantly unleashed a devilish free-kick which evaded the wall, beat a desperate Abdullah Al-Mayouf and lodged itself in the top corner. It was Russia’s second goal in stoppage time alone, and was a fitting way to end a dominant, if scarcely believable, 5-0 win. There were doubts about Russia going into this tournament. In front of a parochial home crowd, they showed that they can be a force to be reckoned with.

The signs were there from the start. Saudi Arabia looked strong when they got through Russia’s effective midfield press. Unfortunately for them, such moves were few and far between, with most resulting in turnovers and leaving them vulnerable on the counter. Russia looked more clinical, and from the start they looked ready to do some damage. Soon it was a matter of when, not if, the hosts would score.

It took them just under 12 minutes. Yuri Zhirkov’s dangerous corner to the front post was cleared well, but it only went as far as Golovin, who cleverly found himself in acres of space. Golovin’s subsequent delivery was perfect, landing on the head of an unmarked Yury Gazinsky and leaving the Saudis helpless. The header was directed towards the bottom corner, and Al-Mayouf didn’t stand a chance. It wasn’t going to get any better.

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Denis Cheryshev (in red) scores Russia’s second goal as Omar Hawsawi (left), Mohammed Al-Breik (right) and Abdullah Otayf (centre) watch on. Cheryshev scored twice for the Russians, providing incisive run from the left wing.

If the Saudis were hoping for some respite after going behind early they didn’t get it. Instead, Russia rammed home their advantage, continuing to press the Saudis in midfield and continuing to hit them with dangerous attacks starting in their forward half. For their part, the Green Falcons aided and abetted their opponents with their shocking play in the middle. Their touch was barbaric, and there was always a Russian midfielder ready to seize on their errors. Up front, Mohammed Al-Sahlawi was a lonely figure, often launching an ineffective one-man press on the Russian defenders. He was so ineffectual that no-one would have noticed had he not been there.

Meanwhile, captain Osama Hawsawi had his hands full cleaning up after his teammates. The experienced defender showed his quality, and it seemed as if the Saudis had weathered the storm. Then, minutes before the half, they conceded again. Predictably, it came from a mistake, made by Osama’s namesake and defensive partner Omar. A heavy touch caught the Green Falcons out, and soon Denis Cheryshev – an early substitute for the injured Alan Dzagoev – had some space in the box. What happened next was comical. Cheryshev just stopped, showing exemplary control, and merely watched as not one but two Saudi defenders slid straight past him expecting the shot. Having dealt with them, he promptly slammed it into the top corner.

Saudi Arabia began to settle into the match in the second half, stringing more passes together against a Russian press that wasn’t quite as intense. They had their best chance of the match when Mohammed Al-Breik’s cross drifted across the goalmouth, but neither Al-Sahlawi nor Al-Jassim could get a foot to it. The moment was lost, but Saudi Arabia seemed to have regained some hope. They were finding some possession and territory, and although the Russians were still making dangerous raids into their attacking third there was a sense that the Saudis now had a chance of scoring. Then Russia scored again.

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Artem Dzyuba celebrates after scoring Russia’s third goal. Dzyuba had been on for a minute when the chance came to him, and the goal was scored with his first touch.

The third came courtesy of another delightful Golovin cross. Once again, the talented attacking midfielder found himself with space and time to work with after breezing into the box against the laissez-faire Saudi defence. Once again, his delivery was flawless, finding formidable substitute Artem Dzyuba at the edge of the six-yard box. Once again, the chance was finished off comfortably. Russia were just too good.

Then came their injury time blitz. The game had settled into a bit of a lull, as neither side had a great deal to play for. That was before Cheryshev stepped up again. It was an innocuous looking attack, consisting of a long ball from defence directed at the towering presence of Dzyuba, but Cheryshev turned it into something magical. Collecting the knockdown from the powerful striker, he shot with the outside of his left boot, with the ball flying past Al-Mayouf. The Green Falcons’ spirit was broken, and Golovin’s beautiful finish was merely the icing on the cake.

For Russia, this win will give them the confidence – and the goal difference – to have a real crack at a spot in the second round. For Saudi Arabia, the lowest-ranked team in Russia, this humiliation (at the hands of the second lowest-ranked team) could well shatter their confidence, and it doesn’t bode well for the games ahead. Their stay at the World Cup is almost certain to be brief, but this campaign could end up feeling like a very long one for all involved.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Russia 5 (Gazinsky 12, Cheryshev 43, 90+1, Dzyuba 71, Golovin 90+4)
Saudi Arabia 0
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov; Gazinsky, Zobnin; Samedov (Kuzyayev 64), Dzagoev (Cheryshev 24), Golovin; Smolov (Dzyuba 70).
Saudi Arabia (4-5-1): Abdullah Al-Mayouf – Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Yasser Al-Shehrani; Salem Al-Dawsari, Otayf (Fahad Al-Muwallad 64), Salman Al-Faraj, Taisir Al-Jassim, Yahya Al-Shehri (Hattan Bahebri 74); Al-Sahlawi (Muhannad Assiri 84).

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Aleksandr Golovin places a free-kick into the top corner to score Russia’s fifth goal. Golovin was the star for the Russians, providing two assists in addition to his goal and setting up attacks with his hard work.

Top 5
1. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
Golovin was everywhere, fighting hard for 90 minutes and receiving a fair reward when he picked up a late goal. He assisted two goals with beautiful crosses from the left and the right, and he seamlessly shifted from the left wing to the centre to cover for the injured Dzagoev. His ferocity in defence contributed to a number of turnovers, capping off a brilliant World Cup debut for the 22-year-old.
2. Denis Cheryshev (Russia)
Cheryshev came off the bench after Dzagoev’s injury, and provided a very dangerous attacking threat from the left wing. He scored twice, and managed to make a number of incisive runs to burst through the insipid Saudi defence. His second goal, coming when the match was already sealed, was an incredible finish with the outside of the boot.
3. Yuri Zhirkov (Russia)
Zhirkov showed his experience throughout the match, adding extra impetus to the Russian attack from left-back and combining very well with Cheryshev. His delivery into the box was always dangerous, and he managed to get more involved on the defensive side of the ball than most of Russia’s players. He put in a workmanlike and effective performance.
4. Artem Dzyuba (Russia)
Dzyuba came on in the 70th minute, scored with his first touch and looked much more dangerous than Fyodor Smolov. Maybe the Saudis were already broken by the time he came on, but he showed excellent skill for his massive frame and caused plenty of problems. He will have to come into serious consideration for their next match.
5. Osama Hawsawi (Saudi Arabia)
The captain of the Green Falcons is the one man who can hold his head high after an otherwise dismal showing. His diligence in defence was admirable, especially as his teammates placed him in compromising positions time and time again. He was the only member of defence who looked solid both in and out of possession, and was doing his absolute best to hold it together. It just wasn’t possible.

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.