With the NFL entering the doldrums of the offseason in June, we’re shifting gears to provide some additional content on the other kind of football. The kind that is enjoyed by billions of people worldwide. This summer we are fortunate enough to once again have the Greatest* Soccer Tournament on the planet to keep us entertained until NFL Training Camps start. In anticipation of the 2018 World Cup kicking off in mid-June in Russia, we’ll be taking a look at all 32 teams in each of the 8 groups.
* – The 2018 World Cup comes with an asterisk on “Greatest” because 5 of the Top 25 teams in the World failed to qualify. Those 5 are some of the biggest names and biggest draws both locally (with the United States missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986) and internationally with Italy, Chile, the Netherlands, and Wales.
Today, we start with Group A featuring the host nation Russia, the polarizing Luis Suarez and Uruguay, Mo Salah and Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia.
Russia is making their 4th World Cup appearance (the Soviet Union had 7 World Cup appearances prior to 1990). They have never made it out of the first round. Russia also failed to advance past the group stage at Euro 2016 and at the 2017 Confederations Cup.
As the host nation, Russia did not have to take part in the Qualification Round Robin. They have challenged themselves with difficult opponents over the last year but have struggled to get results. Russia went just 3-4-4 in 2017 and have lost all 3 of their 2018 matches. Granted, two of those were against World Cup favorites Brazil and France, but they allowed 3 goals in both of those games.
Players To Watch
Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has accumulated over 100 caps (or “international appearances”) during his career with the National Team. Fellow CSKA Moscow player Aleksandr Golovin is an up-and-coming talented midfielder.
Saudi Arabia made 4 consecutive World Cup appearances from 1994-2006. Their best result came in the 1994 World Cup when they advanced out of the group stage but were defeated by Sweden 3-1 in the Round of 16. The 1994 tournament was the only time the Green Falcons have made it to the knockout stage. They were also ousted in the group stage of the last two AFC Asian Cups. They also failed to make it out of the group stage in the 2017 Arabian Gulf Cup.
Saudi Arabia qualified for the World Cup by finishing second in their AFC qualification group, just 1 point behind Japan for the top spot and edging out Australia on a goal differential tiebreaker. The national team has prepared for the World Cup by playing a number of friendlies and are 3-1-3 in the 2018 calendar year. This has been an up-and-down team, but in a relatively weak group, they could have a chance to advance to the knockout stage. Saudi Arabia has been known for a revolving door of managers and just days before the World Cup draw appointed Juan Antonio Pizzi to lead the team into Russia. Pizzi was the man at the helm of the Chilean team that won the 2016 Copa America Centenario and finished second at the 2017 Confederations Cup (but failed to qualify for the World Cup).
Players To Watch
Mohammad Al-Sahlawi tied for the most goals scored (with 16) during the World Cup Qualification cycle.
Egypt is making their third World Cup appearance and first since 1990. In their prior two World Cup appearances they did not make it out of the group stage. Egypt saw some continental success in the late 2000s, winning 3 straight Africa Cup of Nations between 2006 and 2010. The Pharaohs failed to qualify for the next 3, but finished in second place in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
Egypt qualified for the World Cup in dramatic fashion, winning their CAF Qualification group on a Mo Salah penalty at the 90+5′ mark against the Republic of Congo. The Pharaohs have not won a game since that Mo Salah winner, going 0-2-2 with losses in friendlies to Portugal and Greece. The story to watch here is whether or not Mo Salah will be healthy enough to play after suffering a shoulder injury against Real Madrid in the Champions League Final in late May. Egypt is not a high-scoring team but with a healthy Salah at the front they have a chance to make it to the Knockout Stage.
Players To Watch
Mo Salah had a breakout year in club play with Liverpool this year, scoring a record 32 goals and winning the Premier League Player of the Year. Goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary has accumulated 157 caps in over 20 years as part of the national team.
Uruguay will be making their third consecutive World Cup appearance and fourth this century. They have won two World Cups (1930 and 1950) and are one of just 5 nations to win the World Cup more than once. La Celeste finished 4th in the 2010 World Cup and reached the Round of 16 in 2014. Uruguay has had a successful run internationally this decade with 3 World Cup appearances, a 4th place finish at the 2013 Confederations Cup, and winning the 2011 Copa America tournament.
La Celeste finished second in CONMEBOL qualification and are entering the tournament on a winning streak. They defeated both the Czech Republic and Walens in the 2018 China Cup and Uzbekistan in a Friendly. Uruguay has one of the best pair of strikers in the tournament in Luis Suarez (97 caps, 50 goals) and Edinson Cavani (100 caps, 42 goals).
Players To Watch
Luis Suarez is one of the most controversial players in the world. The Barcelona forward has an incredible talent for scoring goals but his career has been marred by multiple biting incidents – including at the last World Cup when he bit an Italian defender. Uruguay is loaded with experienced talent in addition to Suarez, including fellow forward Edinson Cavani and defender Diego Godín.
Here are the predictions of the SCB crew (including a special guest appearance by soccer expert SteelSon) on which teams from Group A will advance to the Knockout Stage.