Hawkeye Sidekick

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group A

Italy, The Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and USA may not be at the big dance but it would not be this blog’s style without doing a proper review of the upcoming FIFA World Cup Russia 2018. This is the opening preview salvo will focus on the opening group (Group A) and the host nation have not done too badly in the draw.

Russia

Russia come into this tournament needing to answer questions on their form and their ability to create from an attacking perspective. Their preparations for the tournament have being less than ideal with a couple of notable underwhelming performances. An opening game against a Saudi Arabia who on paper offer quite less going forward should present a good opportunity for Russia to score a couple of goals and gain confidence. Russia to look to counter-attack at every given opportunity so defensively, the hosts will need to be on point. Akinfeev is a vastly experienced keeper with over one hundred caps, quality shot stopper but his ability on crosses will be thoroughly tested. The defensive shape of the side will be led and organized by the likes of Ignashevich. Smolov and Dzyuba will provide the attacking threat but need midfield quality in the form of Zhirkov to come to the fore. If they cannot produce a convincing performance against Saudi Arabia in their opening game, then this group could prove problematic but think they will just about qualify to the last sixteen where that will be that.

Saudi Arabia

Juan Antonio Pizzi is only recently appointed, his two predecessors fired in double quick time. The majority of the squad play their football domestically in Al-Alhi or Al-Hilal. Given the unrest in management issues, how will the side setup in this tournament? The attacking onus will fall on the players who ply their trade in La Liga. Al-Dawsari and Al-Muwallad are technically gifted players who will look to create for the Middle East nation but defensively they look vulnerable given the level of competition that the squad play at  domestically and even from an international perspective. Saudi Arabia will look to entice Russia out of their counter-attacking shell in the opening game; this is the key fixture for the Saudis to set the tone for the rest of the tournament. A heavy defeat and who knows if Pizzi will be leading the team for the second round of games? A potential point against Egypt is optimistic, more realistic is three losses and an early flight home.

Egypt

It is amazing to think that Egypt’s last World Cup appearance was in 1990. Egypt will not lack for physicality, fitness and quality in their ranks. Hector Cuper is a shrewd tactician and will hope that Mohammed Salah is back to full fitness to provide a serious attacking threat upfront. If the forward is, then Egypt are a massive live threat as the side have the defensive and midfield nous to cause problems for the other sides in the group. Hegazi in the heart of the defense needs to provide organization and keep his colleagues focused. Egypt defensively at times are prone to the lapse in concentration seen in their recent loss to Belgium in a warm-up contest. An even contest was blown open by two quick fire goals from Belgium. Fitness concerns abound on Elneny too, the central midfielder can provide stability for Egypt defensively. Fitness is the keyword for this Egyptian squad. If everyone is on top form, they can spring an upset against Russia and beat Saudi Arabia but lack of game time and cohesion could be their undoing. Early opening round exit due to these factors is the hunch.

Uruguay

A proverbial dark horse in this tournament. A nice opening group to settle into the tournament. Massive quality throughout a squad which is vastly experienced. Muslera is an accomplished net minder and his defensive cover boosts the likes of Godin and Gimenez. A notoriously tough team to break down defensively and then you have the sublime attacking threats in attack. Suarez and Cavani provided they receive adequate service out wide have the ability to decide games with moments of brilliance. They are the form side in this group; they should win the group with minimum fuss and look to rest their front line starters before the end of this competition phase.

Verdict

Saudi Arabia, thanks for the coming but you are gone before a ball is kicked. Uruguay will top the group and it is then a battle between Russia and Egypt for the second spot in the group. Russia as host nation pip Egypt who will rue fitness issues for the lack of progression in this tournament.