We start with the hosts. Since the host venues of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup were announced by the now scandalously disregarded Sepp Blatter and his comrades of greed – they have been placed under increasing scrutiny. The entire computer system used in the nefarious bidding process had been lost and Qatar, 2022, has been examined for its national acceptance of homophobia and its poor record regarding the health and safety standards of its stadium building operations.

Luckily, we can now concentrate on the football and it seems, as we edge ever closer, the people off the pitch including the uber-violent far-right groups attached to the domestic club game are overshadowing any potential shown by the Russia soccer squad.

RUSSIA

Unless you are an elite national side it’s extremely difficult to gauge how well a host nation will compete and often the success of a World Cup goes hand in hand with how successful in the competition they can be. Also, there is no comparable form, as hosts, they qualify automatically. The last real relevant gauge is the quite spectacular failure of the teams showing at the FIFA Confederations Cup. Ultimately, they struggled to get out of the group that included New Zealand and the same fate could well face Russia twelve months later.

They will face a really demanding start in the first game of the competition in the Luzhniki stadium; North African football sides tend to be better technically individually especially in the defensive side of the game. Saudi Arabia could well hold the hosts to a draw when you take into consideration the mounting pressure of expectation from the home crowds. The details don’t get any easier for Russia with games against Egypt and Uruguay.

If Russia is to progress into the later rounds Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov will heavily rely on experienced goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. With over 100 international appearances the goalkeeper’s excellent credentials will be consistently tested. Outside of that Russia really struggle with outstanding World Class players – they will be hoping that the collective will be more than its parts.

KEY PLAYER: Igor Akinfeev

Prediction: Being host nation may give them the impetus to qualify – if they fail to get all three points against Saudi Arabia expect Egypt to progress.

 

EGYPT

It’s been a long 28 years since the Egyptians qualified last for a World Cup – unfortunately the nation’s celebrations were cut short and the hopes of the supporters quickly deteriorated one night in MAy when Spanish Real Madrid defender Sergi Ramos ‘collided’ with Liverpool’s Mo Salah not only did Liverpool’s chances of winning the Champions League Final almost disappear in an instance but a nation’s hopes may also be badly damaged. Without a shadow of a doubt, Egyptian Salah is a talent worthy of the biggest sporting event in the World. Omar Gaber will be representing the MLS after being brought in on loan by Bob Bradley’s Los Angeles FC, they go up against group favourites Uruguay in their first game and will be looking to avoid defeat. It’s a race to get Salah fit especially after only naming two recognised strikers in the squad. Expect Egypt to be well organised under the stewardship of Argentinian Hector Cuper – a highly experienced manager. They qualified from the extremely competitive qualifying stages with a game to spare and If Salah’s fit they have an outside chance to pip Russia.

KEY PLAYER: Mohammed Salah

Simply Salah. He is the form man, the man that has produced true magic moments on the highest of domestic levels this season. Never has a nation burdened so much upon the recovery of a shoulder injury.

 

SAUDI ARABIA

Currently standing at sixty-seven in the FIFA rankings this will be Saudi Arabia’s fifth FIFA World Cup. However, on paper, they are probably the weakest of the four teams in Group A. Many teams suffer problems early on as the coaches attempt to mesh the players and coach the required tactical elements of the game in such a small amount of valuable time. Expect a smoother transition for Saudi Arabia as the majority of their squad is from just a handful of team as an example all three goalkeepers and seven defenders named in the FIFA World Cup squad are all from perennial dominant league champions Al Hilal (fifty-seven championship titles) Expect their strongest performance in their first game as they kick the tournament off against Russia under the glare of the World’s media – they will be hoping for first game shock in the similar vein as both Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2008)

Saudi pioneered projects to send several players on loan to La Liga B sides in the hope that the players would be able to develop and progress in a different arena – unfortunately, the experiment backfired as many of the players found themselves on the fringes of the playing squad and not getting as much game time as hoped.

KEY PLAYER: Mohammed El-Sahlawi

El-Sahlawi hits the competition in impressive International form with an outstanding sixteen goals in a competitive qualification tournament. If he can get hit the ground running, maybe, just maybe Saudi Arabia have an outside chance of making the knock out stage of the competition.

 

URUGUAY

Uruguay were the original hosts and winners of the first FIFA World Cup in 1930.  Group A’s stand out team with the standout player and the only team with a winning proven track record in the competition. Despite the quality of players Uruguay was quite the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ team in qualification with two long unbeaten runs splintered by a run of three defeats including a hammering at home by Brazil 1-4 – however they got over the line and the squad has been selected from home nation clubs and top European teams – and with the tandem of the outstanding Luis Suarez and prolific Edison Cavani they should prove too much for the defences of both Saudi Arabia & Egypt and should have qualified before they face Russia. Uruguay could well repeat their epic journey to the semi-finals in South Africa 2010.

KEY PLAYER: Diego Godin

Simply put it, would be easy to go for the World Class FC Barcelona striker, Suarez – however Godin is imperative in how successful Uruguay can be, how well the highly experienced centre back can marshal the defence – a towering influence in Atletico Madrid’s journey into prominence Godin is a natural leader and can defend, which is, unfortunately, an expiring art in the modern game.

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