Soccer

Previews for all eight 2018 World Cup groups – Group A

What to look out for in the Group A of the 2018 World Cup.

Welcome to What The Sports’ FIFA World Cup Previews! We are just eight days away from the most watched sporting event in the world, and will countdown to June 14’s opening match with a preview of each group per day.

Leading off is Group A. The group includes the host country, Russia, one of the world’s best strikers, Luis Suarez, and the Premier League’s Player of the Year, Mo Salah.

There are some talented players in this group, but probably not enough for anybody to pick one of the four to contend for the whole competition. That said, Group A has a lot of balance and should make for an interesting series of games.

Russia

In case you have been living under a rock, or didn’t read my introductory paragraph, they are the host. The Russians automatically qualified for the World Cup, and they are lucky they did. They rank 66th in FIFA’s world rankings, making them the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament, with groupmate Saudi Arabia coming in right behind the Russians at 67.

The team failed to win any of their three group stage matches in 2014 at Brazil, scoring only two goals, while failing to qualify for the knockout round. Two years later, the Russians scored only two goals in France at the 2016 Euros, getting bounced again after three group stage matches, losing two of them.

Stanislav Cherchesov’s men will look to right the ship this month and advance out of a World Cup group stage for the first time in the country’s history.

Who to watch

Fedor Smolov

The Krasnodar striker tallied 14 goals and six assists in 22 Russian Premier League appearances this past season. For a Russian side built on defense, Smolov will be the biggest, and probably only, goalscoring threat in their starting XI. Goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev will have to be solid as well if Russia hopes to advance.

They win the group if…

Russia will have to win their first match and tournament-opener on June 14 versus Saudi Arabia if they want a chance to move to the knockout stage, let alone win the group. Their defense will have to be strong enough to contain superstars Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez of Uruguay and Mo Salah of Egypt, and Igor Akinfeev will need Tim Howard-esque performances for Russia to capture Group A.

Most Likely to be Meme-d

Igor Akinfeev

The meme game has stepped up massively since 2014. That was light work. Heck, WTS wasn’t even created yet! You pull that off again this summer, just throw your phone into the Volga River (Yeah, I Googled “Bodies of water in Russia,” what’s it to ya?).

Saudi Arabia

Squaring off against Russia in the first game of the tournament, the Saudi Arabians are making their fifth World Cup appearance and first since 2006. The team hasn’t won a World Cup match since their first appearance in 1994, which was the only time the Falcons made the knockout round.

The team is managed by former Chilean manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, their third manager in less than a year. They finished second in their qualifying group in Asia, clinching a spot in the World Cup after winning their final qualifying match 1-0 against Japan. Then manager Bert van Marwijk and the Saudi Arabian Football Association were unable to agree upon a contract extension. His replacement, Edgardo Bauza, was sacked after five matches at the helm. It will be interesting to see how Pizzi is able to put together a cohesive squad with a short period of time to prepare for the tournament.

Who to watch

Mohammad Al-Sahlawi

The 31-year-old striker is the leading goal scorer in this Saudi Arabian squad, with 28 goals in 38 caps. The attack goes through Al-Sahlawi, who recorded his first international hat trick as well as a five-goal game during this qualifying cycle.

Through an agreement between the Saudi Arabian government and Manchester United (yes, this is a real thing) Al-Sahlawi spent three weeks in March training with the Reds, which is the only European experience this all-homegrown Saudi Arabian squad has seen. Fahad Al-Muwallad is another player to watch. The winger was loaned to Spanish side Levante this past January. Here’s an insane volley he scored.

They win the group if…

The three other teams in Group A forget they have a game on the days they have to play Saudi Arabia.

Most Likely to be meme-d

I’ve had to do so much research for this team, I can’t pretend like I know anybody in their squad. Any person on the street could shake my hand and say, “Hello, James Mahoney, I play for the Saudi Arabian national soccer team,” and after questioning how they knew my full name, I would have no choice but to believe them. Their entire roster plays domestically, so being a meme might be the greatest chance of stardom any of these players get, unless you purchased the Saudi Professional League package on DirectTV.

Egypt

The Pharaohs have qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years, and will look to win their first-ever group stage match. The team finished first in their CAF qualifying group, besting Ghana (Boooooo!), Uganda and Congo. Mo Salah’s health was in question following a shoulder injury in the Champions League Final, but he has been named in Egypt’s 23-man squad and will be in Russia.

Egyptian captain and goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary will become the oldest participant in the competition’s history at the age of 45, so maybe he will be able to distract opposing team’s strikers with some dad jokes.

El-Hadary:  “Hey (other team’s striker), your shoe’s untied!”

*other team’s strikers looks at his shoe, only to find out it is still tied*

Other team’s striker: “My shoe is not untied. You got me!”

*Perfect pass to other team’s striker gets by him as he is still in shock*

Who to watch
Do I have to say?

They win the group if…

Egypt opens up the tournament with its toughest group stage match against Uruguay, which will feature Liverpool stars of past (Luis Suarez) and present (Salah) going head-to-head. A draw there would leave two very winnable games versus Russia and Saudi Arabia. The same will be said for Uruguay, leaving it up to a goal differential tiebreaker to split the two. Look for some Salah magic to carry the Pharaohs to their first-ever knockout round.

Most likely to be meme-d

Ahmed Elmohamady

Nothing quite like scoring a goal in your own net. I actually did it twice in one game when I was 11 years old. No surprise now that at the age of 20 I am in my parents house, writing blogs and calling out professional athletes. My friend Ahmed sniped upper 90 once, and I have my fingers crossed he will do it again.  

Uruguay

Probably the best team in the group (the highest ranked of the four by 29 spots), Uruguay brings to Russia a group both with veteran and young talent. The elder statesmen of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin, Fernando Muslera and Maxi Pereira see the sun setting on their international careers, making this a potential “last ride” for the core. Youth has been injected into this squad by way of Atletico Madrid center back Jose Maria Gimenez, Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur and Inter Milan midfielder Matias Vecino.

If you’re looking for a World Cup dark horse, look no further than La Celeste. Godín and Gimenez played alongside each other all year in Spain, and will do the same in Russia. Cavani and Suarez are as deadly of a striking duo that any country can produce. It will all come down to how well the midfield group can perform with veterans Cristian Rodriguez and Carlos Sanchez, plus the youngster Matias Vecino.

Who to watch

Luis Suarez

He can chomp down on anybody’s back four.

*looks around nervously for laughs*

They win the group if…

They beat Egypt. Russia and Saudi Arabia shouldn’t pose much of a challenge to this Uruguayan side, so as long as they take care of business, the sky blues should see themselves through Group A for a meeting with the runner-up of Group B. Don’t be surprised if this side doesn’t give up a goal in the group stage as well.

Most likely to be meme-d

Luis Suarez

He is a serial flopper and biter. If we could parlay a bite and a flop, Luis Suarez might be the most bountiful World Cup star for the Twitterverse.

James is a broadcast journalism major at the University of Maryland. He broadcasts and hosts talk shows for WMUC Sports, beat writes for The Left Bench, reports for the Beltway Bulletin and blogs for What The Sports.

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