Like all good hosts should, Russia is in Group A to make everyone else feel comfortable. With Uruguay the favorite to advance out of the group, Egypt hopeful it will have a fully fit Mohamed Salah and Saudi Arabia considered an even match, Russia has its work cut out to avoid embarrassment on home soil at the 2018 World Cup.
Countries with weaker teams that host the World Cup may get a free pass into the competition, but they get no guarantee of advancing to the knockout rounds. Russia will be out to avoid the fate suffered by South Africa in 2010, when it became the first host to miss the knockout stage, though in finishing in third and showing well, it exited with heads high. That could be Russia's road, though its schedule is in its favor. Russia’s first game is against Saudi Arabia, a game the Russians will believe they can win, before things slowly escalated to Egypt—potentially with a healthy Salah—and finish against star-laden Uruguay.
Meanwhile, Egypt will come in putting plenty of pressure on Salah’s banged up shoulder. Salah scored 71% of the Pharaohs' goals during World Cup qualifying, and if their talisman striker isn’t recovered in time before Egypt’s first game against Uruguay, it will make the climb to the last 16 that much more difficult for a nation that hasn’t played in a World Cup since 1990.
Saudi Arabia is the second-lowest ranked team in the competition–67th according to FIFA's monthly standings; only Russia, at 70, is lower–and it's largely an unknown, given it's on its third manager of the World Cup cycle. Bert van Marwijk, now coaching Australia, guided the side through qualification. Ex-Argentina manager Edgardo Bauza followed for five friendlies, before ex-Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi took the reins for just before the World Cup draw. The Saudis ended a 12-year absence from the World Cup with this spectacular goal by Fahad Al Muwallad against Japan. Saudi Arabia’s hopes of getting out of the group stage figured to fall squarely on Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, a striker with plenty of pace and one who finished tied for the most goals in Asia's 2018 World Cup qualifying with 16. It's chances are hampered with the exclusion of the injured Nawaf Al-Abed, though.
Thursday, June 14 (11 a.m. ET): Russia vs. Saudi Arabia
Friday, June 15 (8 a.m. ET): Egypt vs. Uruguay
Tuesday, June 19 (2 p.m. ET): Russia vs. Egypt
Wednesday, June 20 (11 a.m. ET): Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia
Monday, June 25 (10 a.m. ET): Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt
Monday, June 25 (10 a.m. ET): Uruguay vs. Russia
Most Pivotal Match
It’s early on, but the match between Egypt and Uruguay will be pivotal for both teams. It will show us if Uruguay is for real after getting knocked out by a plucky Colombia squad in the 2014 World Cup. The strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani could run ragged over any defense in this competition. Egypt’s defense has a few names that may be familiar to diligent fans, such as Ahmed Elmohamady from Aston Villa and Omar Gaber from LAFC, but the Pharaohs will need to put forth a Herculean effort to win this game, especially if they are to be without Salah. This match will could wind up determining the winner of the group, as both will feel confident of getting points off Russia and Saudi Arabia. If Egypt stumbles in its first match–especially by a lopsided tally–though, it will be under a lot of pressure playing against two other teams hungry for World Cup success.
Potential Sleeper Team
While it would be fun to put the hosts here, there’s just something about Saudi Arabia that screams spoiler. The team hasn’t been to the World Cup in 12 years, and the 31-year-old Al-Sahlawi will fun to watch as he looks to carry the Green Falcons. Russia hasn’t played well leading up to the tournament–it enters winless in seven friendlies–and the pressure of hosting could get to the Russians. If Saudi Arabia pulls off the win in the opener and can tame an Egypt side that's a wildcard due to Salah's status, suddenly they could find themselves in the last 16 for the first time since 1994.
Players to Watch
Luis Suarez (Uruguay): He is one of the best strikers in the world and has regularly put his stamp on international play—whether infamously or otherwise. Cavani is incredibly fun to watch, and center back rock Diego Godin will be pivotal for Uruguay’s chance's, but there’s no one that turns a game on its head and creates headlines like Suarez.
Mohamed Elneny (Egypt): We all know Salah is the key for Egypt. But with his fitness level not certain, it will fall on the shoulders of Egypt’s other household name to play a vital role if Salah can’t get match-ready by June 15. Arsenal's Elneny is a solid midfielder who can do a job defensively as well as roam forward and uncork a wicked shot to stun the opposition.
Igor Akinfeev (Russia): The CSKA Moscow and Russian national team captain is the hosts' most important player. It’s unlikely that Russia can score with teams like Uruguay or even Egypt, given some key injuries and a poor run of scoring form entering the tournament. But if Akinfeev has a blinder of a group stage and manages to keep Russia’s opponents off the scoresheet, then the hosts might have a slight chance of advancing. Akinfeev has spent his entire career in Russia and will be more than comfortable in the surroundings. If he can organize and lead the Russians, then the hosts could make things interesting.
Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Saudi Arabia): The simple fact that Al-Sahlawi appears to be Saudi Arabia’s best chance at scoring goals makes him the most pivotal player for Pizzi's team. Al-Sahlawi's qualifying scoring record, his pace and quick feet make him a threat for potentially weak defensive teams. Whether he can break down Egypt’s defense or sneak a goal or two past Akinfeev is yet to be seen, but he will be the focus for the Saudi attack.
Predictions to go through
Uruguay is basically a safe bet to win Group A with the amount of attacking talent it possesses, as well as the weaknesses of the rest of the group. If Suarez and Cavani can't win you a group with Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia also in it, it's going to be a short tournament for Uruguay. As for second place, if Salah is fit enough against Russia and Saudi Arabia, that should tilt the scales in Egypt's favor–and potentially set up a rematch vs. Sergio Ramos in a last-16 encounter vs. Spain.