Russia obviously qualified through being the host nation but face a stiff test in this group. This is a much different Russian squad than we saw in Brazil. Especially up top with Alexander Kokorin out of the squad, mostly due to injury. In his place starting will likely be Krasnodar striker Fedor Smolov. He scored 14 goals in the Russian Premier League and should provide some quality up top. Russia will also have other choices up top in Artem Dzyuba and Aleksey Miranchuk. In the midfield they have the likes of Denis Cheryshev from Villarreal, Alan Dzagoev, and Yuri Zhirkov among others. There a lot of options but Cheryshev is one who shows attacking quality so there’s a chance he will be playing in the opening match against Saudi Arabia.
The defense is shaky but it’s not necessarily because of their centre backs or fullbacks, it’s goalie Igor Akinfeev. He’s prone to errors and had a howler against South Korea last World Cup. He’s still sure fill in starter on this Russia squad but there will be times where their lack of quality at the back will be shown.
Best case scenario out of this group for Russia is second and it all starts with the first game against Saudi Arabia. Taking at least a point from that game is crucial as well as beating Egypt. If Russia can’t do the second, they are headed for an exit in the group stage.
Now this is the wild card team for Group A. The Pharaohs easily qualified for Russia by topping their group in qualifying, knocking out Ghana in the process. It certainly helped reduce the sting which they suffered by losing the Africa Cup of Nations final to Cameroon. Having only lost once during qualifying, Egypt will be looking to raise some eyebrows and make the knockout rounds. They certainly have the quality and as you know, it all starts up top with winger Mohamed Salah. He had the best season of any attacker in Europe and scored 43 goals for Liverpool, including a whopping 32 in the Premier League. Salah is by far Egypt’s best player and a lot of the attack will go through him. He will be looked upon as the man who can create chances for them along with being the driving force for their counterattack. Salah will be the release outlet and as he has shown at the club level, if you give him too much space, he can blow right by you and it will end with you picking the ball out of your own net.
Mohamed Elneny will be the quality man in midfield for Egypt as the Arsenal midfielder will be responsible for doing it all in that area of the park. They will be asked to hold down the fort in front of the back four while also being able to spring balls for a counterattack. Against the likes of Uruguay, Egypt will be pushed back a lot and the midfield will be key making sure they don’t get completely overpowered. The defense is decent, only allowing 4 goals during qualifying and are led by West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi.
The biggest question for Egypt is the health of Salah. After suffering a shoulder injury against Real Madrid in the Champions League final, his health for this WC is in question. Numerous reports say he will likely only miss Egypt's opening clash, which is against Uruguay. Honestly this was the best case scenario for Egypt. If the reports are true, it makes Salah available against their huge game against Russia and Saudi Arabia, two games they could win. That should enough to see them progress.
This is only Saudi Arabia’s 4th World Cup in their history and first since 2006. They will be hoping to recreate the magic from 1994 which saw them reach the Round of 16. Saudi Arabia had a thrilling qualifying campaign. They finished second ahead of Australia thanks to a 1-0 win over group leaders Japan on the final day. It was Fahad Al-Muwallad, who spend the season on loan at Levante, who scored the crucial goal in the 63rd minute. It helped them avoid a playoff round as they went through on automatic qualification. Led by former Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, Saudi Arabia will be looking to play the roles of spoilers in this group.
Saudi Arabia don’t have the quality like the rest of the teams in their group but it doesn’t mean they will back down from the fight. Under Pizzi’s reign they have seen more stability in terms of tactics and will adjust based on their opponent. Obviously Pizzi can’t press like he used to while managing Chile but he will still load up defensive players on either side depending on the threat. They will surely sit back and look to absorb the pressure thrown at them. Expect Saudi Arabia to do a lot of defending while trying to spring Mohammed Al-Sahlawi as a release valve.
Most of their offense will flow through striker Al-Sahlawi, just like it did for qualifying. He scored a whopping 16 goals during WC qualification for Saudi Arabia, even scoring a hattrick against Timor-Leste. He will be their talisman during this group stage. Even at the age of 31, he still has shown some super speed and can get in behind defenses if they are not paying attention.
Their biggest game will be their first one against Russia. It will be their best chance to get points from this group and even if they can’t qualify out of it, they will try and make games against them tough.
Prediction: Uruguay is easily the best team in this group but it’s a coin flip between Russia and Egypt for second place. It all depends on Salah’s health and if the winger is healthy, second place is Egypt’s for the taking.
Uruguay, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia