Varane’s redemption and Muslera’s howler sees France into the final four

Paul Pogba received the ball in space, and set about running towards the Uruguayan goal. France’s powerful midfielder had been in excellent form, and France were cruising towards the semi-finals of the World Cup against a Uruguayan team that hadn’t really tested them all game. In Pogba’s path stood Uruguayan centre-back José María Giménez. Pogba attempted to neatly skip past him, and Giménez stuck out a leg. As the foul was paid, Giménez looked as if he was about to burst into tears. As the free-kick was taken, he did. There was still time left, but a miraculous Uruguayan comeback seemed impossible. As it turned out, it was impossible.

Uruguay were in trouble before the first kick of the ball. Edinson Cavani, the star of their round of 16 win over Portugal, succumbed to a calf injury accrued during his man-of-the-match performance, and he was replaced by Cristhian Stuani. Stuani is a capable player, but the change was akin to replacing a brand-new Ferrari with a banged-up Holden. He tried his best, but Uruguay’s attack was lacking in almost every department. Cavani’s hard work in transition was lost, and without him Uruguay were fighting a losing battle.

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Cristhian Stuani (left) and Lucas Hernández battle for the ball. Stuani came in for the injured Edinson Cavani, and although he fought hard he couldn’t make up for the loss of Uruguay’s star striker.

It didn’t necessarily seem that way in the opening exchanges, as France looked nervous and made a number of early errors as a result. Balls were awkwardly controlled under little to no pressure, passes were missed and occasionally even hit straight into pursuing players. With Cavani around, Uruguay may have taken advantage. Without him, they couldn’t even turn France’s nerves into a clear-cut chance. France settled and began to control the early possession, but neither side was creating too many chances despite the openness of the contest.

Then, just as the sides were approaching half time, France took the lead. Four years earlier, in the quarter-finals against Germany, French centre-back Raphaël Varane was beaten in the air by Mats Hummels as France conceded the goal that eliminated them from the World Cup. Now Varane received a chance for redemption when Antoine Griezmann’s well-choreographed free-kick found him in the box. He was unmarked, and he got his head on the ball, but the chance was still a tough one. He converted it expertly, diverting a glancing header into the bottom corner and leaving Fernando Muslera helpless to intervene.

Uruguay reacted well after going behind, and they had an almost identical chance to Varane’s minutes after going behind. Martín Cáceres got his head on a free-kick, and diverted it into the bottom corner. It seemed destined to level the scores as it flew towards the bottom corner. Then Hugo Lloris got in the way. The French captain dived full length, stuck out a hand and parried it away, before Diego Godín blasted the rebound wide of the target from close range. Thanks to Lloris, and Godín’s remarkable miss, France survived. After the break, Uruguay kept pushing, but there was always something missing in their attacks. Then a goalkeeping error put France two goals up, and Uruguay never recovered.

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Fernando Muslera watches helplessly as his poor attempt at a save loops past him into the back of the net. Muslera’s mistake consigned Uruguay to elimination, and all but confirmed France’s passage to the semi-finals.

It wasn’t Muslera’s first mistake. Shortly after half time, the goalkeeper was caught in possession in his own box, and Griezmann nearly capitalised. It was Griezmann who benefitted from his next error a few minutes later. The goal started with Pogba, who strolled easily past Uruguay’s midfield and reached the edge of the box almost unopposed. He shuffled the ball to Corentin Tolisso, who was in space, and Tolisso moved the ball on to Griezmann. Griezmann took a seemingly harmless shot, directed straight at Muslera. Then it swerved. It didn’t move much, but it was enough to leave Muslera in an awkward position as he looked to make the save. His clumsy two handed bat at the ball didn’t work, and the ball looped over the goal line.

After going 2-0 up, the French finished the game off well, with a bizarre clash between Kylian Mbappé and Cristian Rodríguez the only hitch. It wasn’t exactly clear what had taken place, but high tempers ensued as Mbappé ran into Rodríguez, went to ground and drew the ire of Uruguay’s players. Confusingly, both players ended up booked, with Néstor Pitana seemingly cautioning Rodríguez for the indiscretion and Mbappé for simulation at the same time. The French calmed down and potential suspensions were narrowly averted, and with Uruguay’s attack looking increasingly toothless as the game wore on the French never looked threatened. It was a calm, composed performance, and it bodes well for France as they enter the business end of the tournament.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Uruguay 0
France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Cáceres, Giménez, Godín, Laxalt; Nández (Urretaviscaya 73), Torreira, Vecino, Bentancur (Rodríguez 59); Suárez, Stuani (Gómez 59).
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé (Dembélé 88), Griezmann (Fekir 90+3), Tolisso (N’Zonzi 80); Giroud.

Top 5
1. N’Golo Kanté (France)
Kanté is far from the most talented player on France’s team. He’s not particularly quick, he’s not particularly strong, and he can’t really contribute to the attack from his position in holding midfield. He is also France’s most important player. His superhuman endurance and brilliant reading of the play cut out a number of Uruguayan attacks, and he dominated the midfield.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba had a massive impact playing alongside Kanté, contributing to attacks with his robust runs from the centre of the park and playing a key role in their most dangerous offensive forays. He was everywhere, and his combination with Kanté is a huge part of France’s success. He was nearly suspended for an off-the-ball incident, and France will be thankful for his lucky escape.
3. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann just kept popping up in dangerous positions, and eventually he got his reward with a fairly lucky goal. He also provided the assist for Varane’s opener, and his ability to find space and use the ball effectively made a big difference for the French as they looked to break down Uruguay’s strong defence.
4. Olivier Giroud (France)
If there’s one man that can be credited with France’s rebound from a slow start to this tournament, it’s Giroud. He came in after an underwhelming first up performance and has delivered in every match, tying the team together with his strong play up front and striking up a devastating combination with Griezmann. He hasn’t really looked like scoring, but he plays a massive role.
5. Martín Cáceres (Uruguay)
Cáceres was one of few bright lights in an otherwise poor Uruguayan display, as he worked tirelessly shuffling up and down the right wing and made contributions in both attack and defence. He came closest to scoring for Uruguay with a brilliant header, and he was their best player by some distance.

Portugal, and Ronaldo, bow out against Cavani’s brilliant double

Ricardo Quaresma attempted to dance around Christian Stuani on the right wing. Portugal were desperately chasing a late equaliser against a determined Uruguayan defence, and their World Cup future was on the line. Eventually, Quaresma decided he couldn’t really get past Stuani. Instead, he jumped over him, intent on gaming the referee and winning a free-kick in a dangerous position. César Ramos was not fooled, the ball went out for a goal-kick, and Portugal reacted indignantly. Cristiano Ronaldo, their captain, undisputed star player and main goal scorer, led the protests. He ran towards Ramos, got in his face, and received a yellow card for his troubles. Even if Portugal had managed to equalise in the final moments, and even if they had made it through to the quarter-finals, Ronaldo would have been suspended. It wasn’t really fitting that what was potentially Ronaldo’s final act at a World Cup involved a disciplinary indiscretion.

The game was always likely to be an interesting one, with both sides fielding solid defences and dangerous attacks headlined by world-class talent (Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani for Uruguay, Ronaldo for Portugal). It was Suárez and Cavani who struck first. Cavani started it, receiving the ball on the right wing and switching it across Portugal’s back four to pick out Suárez on the left. Having received the truly remarkable pass, Suárez cut back onto his right foot, as if preparing to shoot. His cross almost looked like a shot as it flew towards the back post. Then Cavani got on the end of it. If Portugal thought Cavani had played his part after his brilliant cross-field ball, they were wrong. The Uruguayan striker put in an immense effort to complete a brilliant cross-field one-two which broke down Portugal’s defence. The finish, a header from close range, was the easy part.

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César Ramos (right) shows Cristiano Ronaldo a yellow card for dissent. Ronaldo lost his cool in the final moments of Portugal’s defeat, culminating in his second booking of the tournament.

Now chasing the game, Portugal controlled possession and territory but never really looked capable of breaching Uruguay’s solid and very determined defence. Ronaldo had a shot blocked. Gonçalo Guedes had a shot blocked. William Carvalho tried a long shot. It was blocked. Crosses were played into the box, looking for Ronaldo, but they were never quite on point and they were mostly claimed without challenge by Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. Occasionally, they weren’t too far off, and Diego Godín would have to head them away instead. When Uruguay went forward quickly after Portugal’s missed chances, Suárez won a free-kick and forced Rui Patrício into a tough save as he directed said free-kick under the wall. It was more dangerous than any of Portugal’s many attacks. Back up the other end, Ronaldo took a free-kick on the edge of the box. It was blocked, by the wall, and cleared away by Lucas Torreira’s bicycle kick. A succession of poor crosses and ineffective attacks later, Portugal went to half time without looking like breaking down Uruguay’s seemingly impenetrable defence.

Portugal started the second half much as they finished the first, dominating possession but failing to make much of it. Then, shortly after resumption, they scored. It all happened quite suddenly, starting with some nice build-up play and a corner emanating from Adrien Silva’s shot on the edge of the area. Silva slipped, but his shot was somehow deflected away for a corner. From the corner, they found the back of the net. It was a rare defensive lapse from Uruguay which created the opening. Raphaël Guerreiro’s cross beat Godín’s partner, José María Giménez, and Ronaldo’s big leap. Unfortunately for Uruguay, Pepe was there, and completely unmarked. He had no problems getting his head to the ball, and he had even fewer issues putting the header into the back of the net.

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Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring one of his two goals. Both of Cavani’s goals were brilliant finishes, and they delivered Uruguay to victory.

It didn’t take long for Uruguay to take the lead again. Cavani scored the goal, beating Patrício with a classy finish and sending the Uruguayan fans into raptures. It began with a mistake. Pepe, the goal scoring hero only a few minutes earlier, bungled a defensive header, presenting Nahitan Nández with the opportunity to run at Portugal’s now stretched defence. He played a beautiful sideways pass to Cavani, who received the ball just inside the box and in plenty of space. Cavani had a few options as he approached Nández’s perfect pass. He could pick up the ball and dribble towards goal, getting himself to close range before unleashing a shot. He could have dribbled wide and put in a cross for Suárez, who was streaming through the middle. Instead, he shot first-time. He angled his run towards the ball so that he could shoot with the instep of his right foot, and he nonchalantly curled the ball past Patrício and into the opposite corner of the net. It was a truly remarkable strike, and it left Portugal needing another equaliser.

Portugal began to improve as they pursued their second goal, but they couldn’t find the elusive equaliser. Muslera made a mess of dealing with Guerreiro’s cross, but Bernardo Silva couldn’t capitalise as he blasted it over the top of an empty goal. Mexican referee Ramos decided he had fouled Muslera anyway. Their crosses became more dangerous, and they were creating shots in better positions. Uruguay didn’t seem to care. Godín won the ball in the air every time it was kicked in his direction, and Uruguay’s hard work meant that they continued to weather the storm. They threw themselves in front of shots. They were always there to challenge the Portuguese. Ronaldo attempted to intimidate his opponents with tricks and breeze straight past them. Unfazed, they just waited until his tricks had been completed and kicked the ball away contemptuously. Uruguay had an answer to everything Portugal threw at them. By the end, Portugal had nothing left to throw.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Uruguay 1 (Cavani 7, 62)
Portugal 1 (Pepe 55)
Referee: César Ramos (Mex)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Cáceres, Giménez, Godín, Laxalt; Nández (Sánchez 81), Vecino, Torreira, Bentancur (Rodríguez 63); Suárez, Cavani (Stuani 74).
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patrício – Ricardo Pereira, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva (Quaresma 65), João Mário (Manuel Fernandes 85); Guedes (André Silva 74), Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani was in brilliant form, scoring both of Uruguay’s goals and providing a touch of class to every Uruguayan move. His finish to complete the second goal was superlative, and his hard work and effortless class allowed him to score the game’s opener. His combination with Suárez looks scary, and Uruguay will be hoping that the late niggle he picked up doesn’t hurt their campaign.
2. Diego Godín (Uruguay)
Where would Uruguay be without Diego Godín? It’s certain that they’d be nowhere near as solid. Once again, Uruguay’s captain and defensive leader was colossal, rebuffing Portugal’s attacks thanks to his height, experience and brilliant positioning. He always seemed to be exactly where Uruguay needed him, and he ensured Uruguay’s safe passage to the quarter-finals.
3. William Carvalho (Portugal)
William was in fine form, pulling the strings from deep in midfield and taking charge of all of Portugal’s attacking play. His defensive work rate was good, but it was his underrated playmaking ability which really stood out on a night where little went right for the Portuguese.
4. Lucas Torreira (Uruguay)
Torreira’s defensive effort was unbelievable, as he pushed himself to his limits with his determination to get in front of shots and keep Portugal from breaking through. He threw himself in Portugal’s way, at one point ending up on the ground after blocking a particularly powerful effort from Ronaldo. He fought very hard.
5. Bernardo Silva (Portugal)
Silva hadn’t really found form in the group stage, and he found himself dropped for Portugal’s crucial clash with Iran as a result. Restored to the starting line-up, he finally justified his selection, looking dangerous as he ran at Uruguayan defenders and putting in some incisive crosses.

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.

Saudi Arabia knocked out in lifeless encounter

Luis Suárez was hacked down in the middle of the field, and Uruguay tried to catch the Saudi Arabian defence out with a quick free-kick. It worked, to a point. Edinson Cavani slipped into space, and glided to the edge of the box. Then, with nothing else to do, he stopped. No Uruguayan player had joined him on the counter-attack. If there was one moment in this match which summed up Uruguay’s lack of commitment to free-flowing play, this was it. Suárez gave them a one-goal lead midway through the first half, and they kept it until the final whistle. It wasn’t pretty, and for large periods it was turgid, but Uruguay didn’t seem to care as they sealed their spot in the round of 16 with an unspectacular but solid victory.

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Luis Suárez celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game. The goal could have been the first of many, but Uruguay were too comfortable in their lead to really push for more.

Things could have been a lot worse for the Saudis. Their tournament opener against the Russians was an unmitigated disaster, and it was all bad news following their 5-0 defeat. Players were being promised “consequences” for their poor performances, Juan Antonio Pizzi looked set for the sack and, to cap it all off, their aeroplane caught fire on their way to Rostov-on-Don. Against an experienced Uruguayan side complete with two brilliant strikers in Suárez and Cavani, a bloodbath was not out of the question. It may well have happened, too, had Uruguay understood their part in it all. Unlike Russia, they didn’t attempt to press the Green Falcons, instead allowing them to play the ball around and settle into the game. For their part, Saudi Arabia seemed so happy not to be blown away that they gratefully knocked the ball around without really trying to breach the Uruguayan defence. Then Uruguay hit the front, and began to drain the life out of the contest.

The goal came from a corner, and a goalkeeping error. Carlos Sánchez swung the ball into the box, unsuccessfully hunting out Diego Godín’s leap at the front post. Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Al-Owais missed it as well. The keeper launched himself at the ball and took a wild flail, and his failure to connect left everyone exposed. With no-one having impeded its progress, the ball fell straight at the feet of an unmarked Suárez, who had no troubles finding the back of a very open net. Suárez has scored plenty of goals in a remarkable career, but he won’t have scored many that were more straightforward.

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Osama Hawsawi (right) slides in to thwart Edinson Cavani. Hawsawi played a very solid game in the heart of a sterner Saudi defensive unit.

Saudi Arabia continued to push after going behind, finding the space and time they needed to string some passes together and even starting to create some chances. Hattan Bahebri had a couple of opportunities to equalise, at one point latching on to Yasser Al-Shehrani’s ball into the box but blasting it over the bar. Leading the line, Fahad Al-Muwallad showed some pace, and threatened to cause serious issues for the Uruguayan defence. He never really made good on his threat. The Saudis weren’t being pressed into mistakes high up the field, but they were met at every turn by a solid Uruguayan side content to sit back in the confidence that they could handle anything thrown at them.

As the second half drew on, Uruguay continued their approach, resulting in a dull game which just continued to get duller. At least the Uruguayans had some chances, with Sánchez continuing to fight and Cavani improving to bring a touch of class to Uruguay’s attacks. He had some great chances, wrong-footing Al-Owais after heading Lucas Torreira’s mishit shot towards the opposite corner and beating three Saudi defenders to create something out of nothing, but he couldn’t find the back of the net. It wasn’t costly, as Saudi Arabia played like they were simply relieved not to be blown away and continued to mount tentative attacks devoid of urgency. In the 93rd minute, Uruguay managed to win themselves a corner. With Saudi Arabia presenting no real threat, they could have tried for a goal and sent it into the box. They didn’t, happy to play it short, stop their opposition from receiving the ball and generally do whatever it took to get the win. They got the win, and that’s all that really mattered for them.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Uruguay 1 (Suárez 23)
Saudi Arabia 0
Referee: Clément Turpin (Fra)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Varela, Giménez, Godín, Cáceres; Sánchez (Nández 82), Vecino (Torreira 59), Bentancur, Rodríguez (Laxalt 59); Suárez, Cavani.
Saudi Arabia (4-5-1): Al-Owais – Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Al-Bulaihi, Al-Shehrani; Bahebri (Kanno 75), Al-Faraj, Otayf, Al-Jassim (Al-Mogahwi 44), Al-Dawsari; Al-Muwallad (Al-Sahlawi 78).

Top 5
1. Carlos Sánchez (Uruguay)
Sánchez was one of the few Uruguayan players who presented a threat going forward, and his hard work down the right flank had a big impact on Uruguay’s play. He provided the assist for Suárez’s goal, and made his presence felt until his substitution late in the piece.
2. Osama Hawsawi (Saudi Arabia)
With a more solid defensive structure around him Hawsawi was able to thrive, making some key stops and denying Uruguay with some athletic pieces of defensive work. He made his presence felt against Uruguay’s very dangerous strike pairing, and he combined well with club teammate Al-Bulaihi.
3. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani played an active role in the first half as a conduit between the midfield and the attack, but it was his second half effort which caught the eye. Playing a more advanced role, he started to work his way into pockets of space in the Saudi half and added a touch of class to Uruguay’s attacking play. There’s room for improvement, but he looks in decent touch.
4. Ali Al-Bulaihi (Saudi Arabia)
Al-Bulaihi came into the team after the catastrophe of the tournament opener, and he immediately provided the solidity in central defence that the man he replaced, Omar Hawsawi, lacked. He made a number of good challenges on Suárez and Cavani, and seemed to cause some frustration for the Uruguayans.
5. Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
The fact that Suárez had, by his lofty standards, a quiet game but still managed to find the back of the net speaks volumes for his ability to get himself on the scoresheet. The goal was by no means a difficult one to convert, but his positioning was as dangerous as ever and he showed some evidence of his footballing smarts.

Uruguay do it tough, but get it done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

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

The Contenders

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

The Dark Horses

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

The Wildcards

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

The Knockout Hopefuls

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

The Early Exiters

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

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

Predictions

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

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group A

Group A

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Russia (70), Saudi Arabia (67), Egypt (45), Uruguay (14)
Fixtures:
Russia vs Saudi Arabia, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Egypt vs Uruguay, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
Russia vs Egypt, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Uruguay vs Russia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
Saudi Arabia vs Egypt, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd

Russia

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

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), 12. Andrey Lunyov (Zenit), 20. Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge).
Defenders: 2. Mário Fernandes (CSKA Moscow), 3. Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), 4. Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), 5. Andrei Semyonov (Akhmat Grozny), 13. Fyodor Kudryashov (Rubin Kazan), 14. Vladimir Granat (Rubin Kazan), 23. Igor Smolnikov (Zenit).
Midfielders: 6. Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal), 7. Daler Kuzyayev (Zenit), 8. Yury Gazinsky (Krasnodar), 9. Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow), 11. Roman Zobnin (Spartak Moscow), 15. Aleksei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), 16. Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), 17. Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow), 18. Yuri Zhirkov (Zenit), 19. Aleksandr Samedov (Spartak Moscow), 21. Aleksandr Yerokhin (Zenit).
Forwards: 10. Fyodor Smolov (Krasnodar), 22. Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula).

Russia will enjoy the support of their home crowds at this year’s event, and they may just have the team to make a run. As hosts, the Russians have been drawn into one of the easiest groups in the tournament, and they will have a decent chance of progressing against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay. In goal, Igor Akinfeev has vast experience and is a proven performer at the highest level, and his leadership will be important. Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Golovin are quality playmakers in midfield, while Fyodor Smolov has been a dependable scorer within Russia for a few seasons and could have an impact. Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad contains some exciting fresh faces, with Golovin, Roman Zobnin, Daler Kuzyayev and the identical Miranchuk twins (Aleksei and Anton) all capable of giving the Russians an extra boost that was lacking at Euro 2016. In front of their fans the Russians may just be a surprise packet who could make a run.

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Fyodor Smolov finds the back of the net against New Zealand at the Confederations Cup. Smolov will be a dangerous presence in Russia’s attack at the World Cup.

All of this, however, cannot paper over the glaring cracks within the team. The Russians have not played competitively since the Confederations Cup, where they bombed out with losses to Portugal and Mexico, and it is not clear whether they would have qualified without hosting rights. Their preparation was so poor that at one point the Russians played a friendly against club side Dinamo Moscow, because they couldn’t arrange to play against a full international team. On the field, they have plenty of other issues, especially in defence. The retirements of Sergei Ignashevich, former captain Vasili Berezutski and his brother Aleksandr left a huge hole before injuries to Viktor Vasin, Georgi Dzhikiya and Ruslan Kamborov depleted their stocks further. The situation has deteriorated to the point where the 38-year-old Ignashevich has reversed his retirement to fill the void, but the defensive problems are by no means solved. There is a general lack of quality all over the park borne from a lack of players who play outside Russia, and this could prove problematic as they look to get through the group stage.

Star Player: Fyodor Smolov

Smolov has become a regular in the Russian attack in the last few years, due in no small part to his goal-scoring exploits for Krasnodar. He has bagged 52 league goals in the last three seasons after leaving Dinamo Moscow on a free transfer, and he has become an integral part of the Russian team. He has risen rapidly over the last few years, and he is capable of finding the back of the net against the world’s best.

Key Player: Igor Akinfeev

Akinfeev has over 100 caps for Russia, and he has been a key pillar of both the national side and CSKA Moscow for over 10 years. His experience at the highest level will be especially critical given his side’s defensive difficulties, and the Russians will need him to stand up and perform if they are to make any progress.

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Aleksandr Golovin evades a challenge in a friendly against Turkey. Golovin is a talented prospect and a key part of Russia’s midfield.

One to watch: Aleksandr Golovin

Golovin is just 22, but he is already a high-class footballer who will form a key part of Russia’s World Cup plans. He is a well-rounded central midfielder who works hard in both defence and attack, and in the last few seasons he has established himself as an integral part of CSKA Moscow’s midfield. He has plenty of talent, and if he gets going he could make a big mark on the world stage.

Verdict

Russia could be a strong side, and they do have an easy group, but a lot will have to go right if they are to progress deep into their home tournament. It’s hard to see them making a big run with so many issues.
Likely Team (3-5-1-1): Akinfeev; Kudryashov, Ignashevich, Kutepov; Samedov, Zobnin, Golovin, Dzagoev, Zhirkov; Aleksei Miranchuk; Smolov.

Saudi Arabia

Head Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Captain: Osama Hawsawi
Previous Appearances: 4 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994)
Qualified: AFC, 2nd Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (16)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Abdullah Al-Mayouf (Al-Hilal), 21. Yasser Al-Mosailem (Al-Ahli), 22. Mohammed Al-Owais (Al-Ahli).
Defenders: 2. Mansoor Al-Harbi (Al-Ahli), 3. Osama Hawsawi (Al-Hilal), 4. Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al-Hilal), 5. Omar Hawsawi (Al-Nassr), 6. Mohammed Al-Breik (Al-Hilal), 13. Yasser Al-Shehrani (Al-Hilal), 23. Motaz Hawsawi (Al-Ahli).
Midfielders: 7. Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal), 8. Yahya Al-Shehri (Leganés), 9. Hassan Bahebri (Al-Shabab), 11. Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri (Al-Hilal), 12. Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal), 14. Abdullah Otayf (Al-Hilal), 15. Abdullah Al-Khaibari (Al-Shabab), 16. Housain Al-Mogahwi (Al-Ahli), 17. Taisir Al-Jassim (Al-Ahli), 18. Salem Al-Dawsari (Villarreal).
Forwards: 10. Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr), 19. Fahad Al-Muwallad (Levante), 20. Muhannad Assiri (Al-Ahli).

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Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (right) battles for the ball in qualifying against the UAE. Al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals in qualification, making him Saudi Arabia’s leading scorer.

Saudi Arabia managed to proceed automatically to the World Cup after a long qualifying campaign, eventually avoiding the play-offs on goal difference with a 1-0 victory over Japan. Their team contains plenty of experience, with key players Osama Hawsawi and Taisir Al-Jassim each recording over 130 caps. Up front, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is very capable of finding the back of the net, and if he receives quality service he will make an impact. In Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad the Saudis have some quality creative players at their disposal, and both Taisir Al-Jassim and Abdullah Otayf will provide solidity in central midfield. The skills of their creative players could be especially dangerous if their defence steps up, and a settled back four of Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsari, Yasser Al-Shehrani and Mansoor Al-Harbi could be hard to break down. Most of the squad comes from just two clubs, making the Saudis a tight-knit group who could make a splash.

There are, however, plenty of issues. The man who led the Green Falcons to Russia, Bert van Marwijk, left shortly after the win over Japan that sealed their passage due to a contractual dispute. As a result, Juan Antonio Pizzi is their third coach in less than a year, making the close bonds within the squad more important than ever. Most of the squad play their football in Saudi Arabia, meaning that they receive precious little exposure to the world’s best, and this lack of top level experience could be a problem. Al-Shehri, Al-Muwallad and Al-Dawsari come to the World Cup with a combined total of two substitute appearances in the last six months thanks to ill-fated loan spells in Spain, and the omission of key playmaker Nawaf Al-Abed means this could be a problem. Saudi Arabia’s previous trips to the World Cup finals have resulted in some shockingly limp efforts, and they will be hoping that they can avoid a similar story here.

Star Player: Yahya Al-Shehri

Al-Shehri will be Saudi Arabia’s main creator in Russia, and with his ability to create chances for both himself and others he could be a handful for defenders at the World Cup. He has the versatility to play on both wings and behind a central striker, and he should combine well with Al-Sahlawi in attack. He hasn’t played at a club level since going out on loan to Leganés, but he can still make a difference.

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Yahya Al-Shehri scores in a pre-tournament friendly against Italy. Al-Shehri is one of the Green Falcons’ most skilled players, and will play a big role in Russia.

Key Player: Osama Hawsawi

Hawsawi has been a key part of the Saudi team since making his debut in 2007, and his 134 caps’ worth of experience in the heart of defence will be invaluable for the Green Falcons. He is a quality defender who will provide on-field leadership, and Saudi Arabia will need him to lead from the front if they are going to progress past the group stage.

One to watch: Fahad Al-Muwallad

Al-Muwallad scored the goal against Japan that sent the Saudis through to the World Cup, and the 23-year-old winger is one of their brightest young prospects. He is fast and has the ability to find the back of the net, and he made history late in the season when he became the first Saudi player to play in La Liga (although he only made one appearance). He could shine if given the opportunity.

Verdict

They have plenty of talent, especially up front, but a lack of exposure to the top-level and a lack of time for Pizzi and his players to gel could derail their campaign. It won’t be easy for the Green Falcons as they look to escape the group stage for the first time.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Al-Mosailem; Al-Shehrani, Omar Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi, Al-Harbi; Al-Jassim, Otayf; Al-Dawsari, Al-Shehri, Al-Muwallad; Al-Sahlawi.

Egypt

Head Coach: Héctor Cúper
Captain: Essam El-Hadary
Previous Appearances: 2 (1934, 1990)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1934, 1990)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group E
Qualification Top Scorer: Mohamed Salah (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Essam El-Hadary (Al-Taawoun), Sherif Ekramy (Al Ahly), 23. Mohamed El-Shenawy (Al Ahly).
Defenders: 2. Ali Gabr (West Bromwich Albion), 3. Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa), 6. Ahmed Hegazi (West Bromwich Albion), 7. Ahmed Fathy (Al Ahly), 12. Ayman Ashraf (Al Ahly), 13. Mohamed Abdel-Shafy (Al-Fateh), 20. Saad Samir (Al Ahly).
Midfielders: 4. Omar Gaber (Los Angeles FC), 5. Sam Morsy (Wigan Athletic), 8. Tarek Hamed (Zamalek), 14. Ramadhan Sobhi (Stoke City), 15. Mahmoud Hamdy (Zamalek), 17. Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), 19. Abdallah Said (KuPS), 21. Trézéguet (Kasımpaşa).
Forwards: 9. Marwan Mohsen (Al Ahly), 10. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), 11. Kahraba (Al-Ittihad), 18. Shikabala (Al-Raed), 22. Amr Warda (Atromitos).

Egypt qualified for their first World Cup since 1990 on the back of Mohamed Salah’s goals, and they will consider themselves a big chance in the easiest group at this tournament. Salah has been in imperious form for Liverpool this season, breaking the record for most goals in a 38-game Premier League season and establishing himself as a truly world-class player. He is backed up by some talented young players like Ramadhan Sobhi and Trézéguet, while Abdallah Said is also capable of creating quality chances. Elneny has had injury problems this season, but he is still a solid player in central midfield and he will shield a solid defensive pairing of Ali Gabr and Ahmed Hegazi. The two West Brom centre-backs are well-supported by Ahmed Fathy, Mohamed Abdel-Shafy and Ahmed Elmohamady, and 45-year-old captain Essam El-Hadary will become the oldest player in World Cup history when he stands in goal in Russia. Egypt have some good players, and should not be underestimated.

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Mohamed Salah scores during a qualifying game against the Congo. Salah’s injury from the Champions League final is a major concern for the Egyptians.

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Going into the Champions League final, Egypt were in a pretty good position. Then, 30 minutes in, disaster struck. Salah was involved in a tangle with Sergio Ramos, and left the field in tears, nursing his injured shoulder. Salah is not the only player in the Egyptian set-up playing for a top club (Elneny is currently at Arsenal), but he is the best player in their side by a very long way. He is in the squad, and is likely to play through pain, but his injury could severely limit his impact. Given Egypt’s biggest issue heading into the World Cup was an over-reliance on Salah, his injury means others will need to step up and fill the void. Furthermore, Héctor Cúper has dropped their first-choice striker, Kouka, for the World Cup, leaving the previously injured Marwan Mohsen to lead the line. Whether he can do this, especially if Salah is not at his best, could make or break Egypt’s campaign.

Star Player: Mohamed Salah

Salah may be injured, but Egypt’s star right-winger can still have an impact. He is quick, skilled and has a knack for finding himself in good positions, and his ability to get in behind defences will make him a handful for any opponent. Salah remains Egypt’s sole world-class player, and if he can get on the pitch he is a chance to back up his scintillating form at Liverpool.

Key Player: Ahmed Hegazi

Hegazi moved to the Premier League on loan at the start of the season, and quickly established himself as a permanent member of West Brom’s defence. Having since been signed from Zamalek, Hegazi has a chance to further his reputation as a dependable centre-back with strong performances at the World Cup. He is physically imposing and can provide an aerial threat at corners, and Egypt will be relying on him to step up on the big stage.

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Trézéguet (right) runs down the wing during an African Cup of Nations match against Ghana. Creative players like Trézéguet will need to step up in Russia if Egypt are going to perform.

One to watch: Trézéguet

Trézéguet has been performing well for Kasımpaşa after going out on loan, and the quick winger has plenty of talent. He has been linked with a move to the Premier League following the World Cup, and he could boost his value if he performs well for the Pharaohs. Trézéguet is one of the players who will be looking to step up after Salah’s injury, and is an exciting prospect for Egypt going forward.

Verdict

With a fully-fit Salah, Egypt have the team to make a splash at the World Cup. With his injury, their fate is not so clear, and it will be interesting to see how Héctor Cúper’s side respond.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): El-Hadary; Fathy, Hegazi, Gabr, Abdel-Shafy; Elneny, Hamed; Salah, Said, Trézéguet; Mohsen.

Uruguay

Head Coach: Óscar Tabárez
Captain: Diego Godín
Previous Appearances: 12 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1986, 1990, 2002, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1930, 1950)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 2nd
Qualification Top Scorer: Edinson Cavani (10)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), 12. Martín Campaña (Independiente), 23. Martín Silva (Vasco da Gama).
Defenders: 2. José María Giménez (Atlético Madrid), 3. Diego Godín (Atlético Madrid), 4. Guillermo Varela (Peñarol), 13. Gastón Silva (Independiente), 16. Maxi Pereira (Porto), 19. Sebastián Coates (Sporting), 22. Martín Cáceres (Lazio).
Midfielders: 5. Carlos Sánchez (Monterrey), 6. Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus), 7. Cristian Rodríguez (Peñarol), 8. Nahitan Nández (Boca Juniors), 10. Giorgian de Arrascaeta (Cruzeiro), 14. Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria), 15. Matías Vecino (Internazionale), 17. Diego Laxalt (Genoa).
Forwards: 9. Luis Suárez (Barcelona), 11. Cristhian Stuani (Girona), 18. Maxi Gómez (Celta Vigo), 20. Jonathan Urretaviscaya (Monterrey), 21. Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain).

Uruguay have every reason to be confident heading into this World Cup. They progressed reasonably comfortably through a CONMEBOL qualifying group that was as hotly-contested as ever, and they are the clear team to beat in this group. In Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez the Uruguayans possess two of the world’s best strikers, with either one on their own presenting a significant challenge for any defence. Down back, Atlético Madrid stars Diego Godín and José María Giménez form one of the most formidable central defensive pairings at the tournament, and they are supported by capable defenders in Martín Cáceres, Maxi Pereira, Sebastián Coates, Gastón Silva and Guillermo Varela. In goal, Fernando Muslera is a seasoned campaigner who is a consistent performer at the top level. Their experienced core is completed by a talented young midfield, with Rodrigo Bentancur, Matías Vecino, Nahitan Nández and Giorgian de Arrascaeta likely to feature prominently. With this blend of experience and youth, and plenty of quality at both ends, Uruguay will be a formidable opponent.

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Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring against Brazil in World Cup qualifying. Cavani’s combination with Luis Suárez could be very potent in Russia.

Their lack of experience in midfield, however, could hurt them, as could a lack of depth in attack. Their new-look midfield may need some time to click, with most of their likely starters in Russia still relatively new to the national team. This could impact the side in both attack and defence, and they will need their young players to step up if they are to make a deep run. While the pairing of Giménez and Godín is reliable, Óscar Tabárez has not yet pinned down his best full-back pairing, with Cáceres, Silva, Varela, Pereira and Diego Laxalt all receiving opportunities since qualifying finished. An injury to either Suárez or Cavani could also prove costly, especially with Abel Hernández and Diego Rolán already on the sidelines. The Uruguayans are clearly the strongest team in the group, but their opponents are capable of staging an upset if given the opportunity and Tabárez’s side will be burdened by big expectations.

Star Player: Luis Suárez

Suárez will be eager to atone for his efforts at the last World Cup, where he went in as Uruguay’s biggest hope but left in disgrace after biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. If he can keep himself in line, which has proved a problem in the past, Suárez is a very skilled striker who knows how to find the back of the net. His combination with Cavani could be devastating for opposing defences, and he could be primed for a big individual tournament.

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Luis Suárez celebrates scoring against England in the 2014 World Cup. Suárez’s tournament was later cut short after he bit Giorgio Chiellini, and he will be looking to make amends for that this time around.

Key Player: Diego Godín

Godín is an elite centre-back, having marshalled Uruguay’s and Atlético Madrid’s defences for some time. He is good in the air (and has a handy knack of picking up goals in big games) and is part of a solid central defensive pairing with Giménez that allows the rest of the side to thrive. Uruguay still depend on his ability and experience, and they will need him to be at his best.

One to watch: Rodrigo Bentancur

Bentancur is able to fill basically any midfield role for the Uruguayans, and this versatility allowed him to slot in perfectly during his first season with Italian giants Juventus. He is physically imposing and can play anywhere from defensive midfield to the wing, making him a valuable member of Tabárez’s squad despite his relative inexperience. He could have a very big role to play.

Verdict

Uruguay’s injection of youth seems to be the main difference from their last World Cup campaign, and there is no reason why they can’t go far. If Suárez and Cavani combine well they could easily blow away their group stage opponents.
Likely Team (4-1-2-1-2): Muslera; Varela, Godín, Giménez, G Silva; Nández; Vecino, Bentancur; de Arrascaeta; Suárez, Cavani.

Prediction

This group is probably the easiest in the competition, which should lead to a very tight race for second spot. Uruguay are almost impossible to go past with their line-up of established stars at the best clubs in Europe, and they should cruise through in first. Then come the other three teams, who are very evenly matched. Before Salah’s injury, Egypt would have been clear favourites to progress, and they still look like the most balanced side of the three. Neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia can be written off, however, and the matches between the three teams should be very interesting to watch.
1. Uruguay, 2. Egypt, 3. Russia, 4. Saudi Arabia.