CAPE TOWN - With exactly one week to go to the start of the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia, we run the rule over Group A.
Russia World Cup 2018 - Group A:
Football in the host country has been on the decline over the last decade, but there is some optimism that things are starting to turn for the better, especially with a host of talented emerging players on the rise.
The issue in Russia is, much like South Africa, a case of insulation: because of the high salaries paid in the league, players don’t see the need to seek to improve their game in the bigger, tougher European leagues; they are safe, comfortable and happy at home. This, as a result, has weakened the national team.
After a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign, Stanislav Cherchesov was appointed as head coach, and he immediately set about animating the squad with younger, more mobile footballers. However, if Russia are to qualify for the next round, they’ll have to be at their very best.
Likely to be the whipping boys in this group, Saudi Arabia are now coached by Juan Antonio Pizzi, the Spaniard who failed to qualify Chile for World Cup 2018. For the Saudis, the best motivation would be to remember the 2002 edition of the event, when they were hammered 8-0 by Germany; it’s surely an embarrassment they wouldn’t want to repeat.
Squad wise, names to watch out for are prolific scorer Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and speedy winger Yahya Al-Shehri.
With star man Mohammed Salah expected to recover from the injury he sustained in the Champions League final, Egypt have a player with the ability and charisma to see them through to the next round. It’s the first time in 28 years the North Africans have qualified for the World Cup, and they’ll be energised to give it a full go.
Coach Hector Cuper has, however, made an important point in reminding his squad that they shouldn’t rely too heavily on Salah; football is a team game and he needs every individual in the squad to come to the party.
Of further interest in Egypt’s participation is to see whether 45-year-old goalkeeper Essam el-Hadary gets a game, to become the oldest player to compete at a World Cup.
The favourites of the group, Uruguay have a slick squad, laced with youth and experience. If you’re a betting man and looking for an outsider to go far in the tournament, then put your money on the South American side.
The experience is provided by skipper and central defender Diego Godin, the attacking flair by ace goal-poaching duo Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, while manager Oscar Tabarez has introduced the youthful talents of Rodrigo Bentancur, Nahitan Nández and Matías Vecino.
Who will go through to the next round?
Uruguay and Egypt.