The 2018 World Cup is finally here.
Over the next week or so we will be cranking out our usual group primers, complete with tv schedules and all the basic team info you’ll need to get through the tournament.
Group A consists of the hosts Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay. The hosts might have home field advantage and a very favorable draw but they are no guarantee to get to the knockout rounds. Uruguay is a strong but volatile club at times, Egypt is long overdue for an appearance on this stage and is a serious darkhorse candidate while Saudi Arabia is a fascinating though slightly familiar unknown who can absolutely spoil someone’s group stage.
Why do we call this a “primer” and not a preview? Because this is more a lot of key information in one place that I think is a handy reference for viewers rather than a ton of specific analysis on what each team can or could do at the World Cup.
TV SCHEDULE (all times US Eastern)
Thursday, June 14
11 AM – Russia vs Saudi Arabia, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, FOX/Telemundo
Friday, June 15
8 AM – Egypt vs Uruguay, Ekaterinburg Arena, Ekaterinburg, FS1/Telemundo
Tuesday, June 19
2 PM – Russia vs Egypt, St. Petersburg Stadium, St. Petersburg, FOX/Telemundo
Wednesday, June 20
11 AM – Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don, FOX/Telemundo
Monday, June 25
10 AM – Uruguay vs Russia, Samara Arena, Samara, FOX/Telemundo or Universo
10 AM – Saudi Arabia vs Egypt, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd FS1/Telemundo or Universo
Head Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov (RUS)
Rankings: FIFA 70 / ELO 44
Nickname: Sbornaya (The National Team)
Qualification: Host Country
WC Appearance: 4th (as Russia, 11 total combined w/ Soviet Union)
Best WC Finish: 4th Place, 1966 (as Soviet Union) / as Russia, Group Stage, last three appearances
Roster Breakdown: 21 Domestic, 1 Spain, 1 Belgium
Recent Results: March 23, vs Brazil, L 0-3; March 27, vs France, L 1-3; May 30, at Austria, L 0-1; June 5, vs Turkey, D 1-1
Player You Should Know: MF Denis Cheryshev, Villareal (ESP), 11 caps / 0 goals - An oft-injured but talented winger who was singed by Real Madrid’s youth teams and made over 100 appearances for their B side. There’s not a lot of experience or goals on Russia’s roster, Cheryshev having a breakout tournament would be a big boost for the home side.
Player To Watch: Igor Akinfeev, CSKA Moscow (RUS), 106 caps - The Russian captain has a mantle of domestic trophies and a UEFA Cup Final win back in 2005 (now the Europa League). He’s one of just four players on the squad with over 50 caps and one of seven over thirty and if we’re to assume Russia offense isn’t that great, Akinfeev might have to keep them in games to salvage any hope of getting out of the group.
If you believe such things as the FIFA Rankings, Russia are the worst team in the tournament. This is a very favorable draw for them because a win against Saudi Arabia and a draw against someone else in the group might be all they need get into the knockout rounds. Home field is great, but recent results including group stage exits at Euro 2016 and the 2017 Confederations Cup (which Russia also hosted) make it seem like this could be a quick exit for the hosts.
Head Coach: Hector Cuper (ARG)
Rankings: FIFA 45 / ELO 50
Nickname: The Pharaohs
Qualification: CAF (Africa) Group E Winners
WC Appearance: 3rd; Best WC Finish: Group Stage (1934, 1990)
Roster Breakdown: 8 Domestic, 7 England, 5 Saudi Arabia, 1 MLS/USA, 1 Greece, 1 Turkey
Recent Results: May 25, at Kuwait, D 1-1; June 1, vs Columbia (in Italy), D 0-0; June 6, at Belgium, L 0-3
Player You Should Know: GK Essam El-Hadary, Al-Taawoun FC (KSA /Saudi Arabia), 158 caps / Age 45 - Yes, you read that correctly, El-Hadary is forty-five years old and making his World Cup debut at it’s awesome.
Player To Watch: FW Mohamed Salah, Liverpool (ENG), 57 caps / 33 goals - You knew it was coming and that was before the whole Sergio Ramos incident in the Champions League Final. Salah had a Ballon d’Or caliber year in 2017-18 with Liverpool and now he gets a World Cup stage to show off his form.
I have had a soft spot for the Pharaohs since the Bob Bradley led team narrowly missed out on the 2014 World Cup after a aggregate playoff loss to Ghana. Egypt by all standards should be the second best team in this group and has a very good chance of advancing not just to the knockout stages but also beyond the round of 16. That being said, Mo Salah is very good at soccer but this is still a team making just it’s third tournament appearance and first in a generation. I think this team is very balanced and a lot more than just Salah up top, even if it might seem like their star striker is carrying them to an upset or two.
SAUDI ARABIA [A2/KSA]
Head Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi (ARG)
Rankings: FIFA 67 / ELO 63
Nickname: The Green Falcons
Qualification: AFC (Asia) Third Round Group B Runners-Up
WC Appearance: 5th / Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994)
Roster Breakdown: 20 Domestic, 3 Spain
Recent Results: May 9, vs Algeria (in Spain) W 2-0; May 15, vs Greece (in Spain), W 2-0; May 28, at Italy (in Switzerland), L 1-2; June 3, vs Peru (in Switzerland), L 0-3; June 8, at Germany, L 1-2
Players You Should Know / Watch: MF Taisir Al-Jassim and FW Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (combined 47 int’l goals) - Saudi Arabia’s leading scorer in the AFC third round group stage was Nawaf Al Abed and he didn’t make the final World Cup roster. The Falcons only have three players with double digit international goals on the roster and only two listed forwards, so if there is going to be consistent offense, expect these two players to be involved.
The downside to an almost entire domestic roster is that the Saudis are a bit of an unknown despite making four straight tournaments in the 1990s-2000s. While they’re a longshot to get out of the group, they can absolutely ruin someone’s tournament, especially with a win against Russia on opening day. A big three points in the opener followed by a draw against someone else might just be enough for their second knockout appearance.
Head Coach: Oscar Tabarez (URU)
Rankings: FIFA 14 / ELO 12
Nickname: La Celeste (The Sky Blue)
Qualification: CONEMBOL (S America) 2nd Place
WC Appearance: 13th / Best Finish: Champions (1930, 1950)
Roster Breakdown: 2 Domestic, 5 Spain, 5 Italy, 3 Argentina, 2 Brazil, 2 Mexico, 2 Portugal, 1 Turkey, 1 France
Recent Results: March 23, vs Czech Rep (in China), W 2-0; March 26, vs Wales (in China), W 1-0; June 7, vs Uzbekistan, W 3-0
Players You Should Know: FWs Luis Suarez (FC Barcelona, ESP, 98 caps/51 goals) and Edinson Cavani (Paris St Germain, FRA, 101 caps/42 goals) - When these two are on, Uruguay might seem unbeatable simply because you can’t outscore them. When they’re off, you wonder if there’s enough offensive support in the midfield...in the CONEMBOL round robin, Cavani led everyone with eight goals, Suarez tallied five times and then defenders Martin Caceres and Diego Godin had three apiece.
Player To Watch: DF Maxi Pereira, FC Porto (POR), 125 caps / 3 goals - One of my favorite individual players, Pereira is tremendous on the ball for a defender and somehow doesn’t rack up assists despite his crossing ability and the striker he’s sending them too.
The only way Uruguay doesn’t top this group is if they self-implode on the field and while we might be rooting for that from a narrative standpoint, Uruguay’s probably going to be in the next round even if they don’t win the group. Either way, a Round of 16 match between Spain or Portugal from Group B awaits and that will be all sorts of fun.
Not the strongest group on paper but Egypt could legitimately surprise if they’re on form and take this group. I want to hope the Russia and Saudi Arabia at least make everyone earn their goals on the defensive side but both teams lack the firepower on offense for a deep run. The first matches for the group are key, as it sets up either Russia or the Saudis to play spoiler and Egypt and Uruguay for the top of the group. A draw wouldn’t hurt the two favorites much, but it put the hosts and Saudi Arabia in a position where they would need an upset and while that’s possible, I think this group goes chalk and with a very disappointing run from the hosts as well.
1 - Uruguay (9 pts); 2 - Egypt (6 pts); 3 - Saudi Arabia (3 pts); 4 - Russia (0 pts)