The United States, Italy, Ghana, Netherlands, Chile. All of these nations will not be attending the 2018 World Cup in Russia this year. While the disastrous outcome of the qualifying stages means tons of quality talent, including the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Christian Pulisic, Alexis Sanchez and others will not be showcasing their skills, nations like Peru, Egypt and Morocco get there 15 minutes of fame on the biggest stages world football has to offer. And it means that people from the nations not attending (like yours truly) can make completely unbiased predictions regarding the outcome of the group stages! So, let’s get into it then!
To recap for those who are new to this idea, the world cup draw works like this. The 32 teams are separated into 4 pots based on FIFA world rankings at the time of the draw. The field is separated into 8 groups, A-H. The top 7 and Russia (the host) are in Pot 1 and they occupy the 1st spot in each group. The next 8 teams are drawn into a random spot in each group. Then the next 8 and the final 8 until all the groups are filled. There are other rules regarding the number of teams from the same nation in the pots, but that isn’t too important. This is what it ended up looking like.
Got it? Good. Let’s get to predicting! Starting with…Group A!
Draw: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
In what could be the easiest group in the whole tournament, this group has the potential to be anyone’s to win. Each team is not a powerhouse on the national scale, but have strengths and weakness that can make or break them.
Uruguay have always been seen as a big name team on the World Stage. Players like Luis Suarez (Barcelona, Spain), Edinson Cavani (PSG, France), and Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid, Spain) leading the core of their team. However, taking a closer look at these players, you can see why they fell short at the 2016 Gold Cup. Suarez, who has been battling injuries at every international cycle it seems, has been struggling a bit with Barcelona. Suarez has only netting 7 times in 20 appearances since August, most of which were against bottom half teams or in blow outs. Internationally, he played in the latest WCQs for Uruguay, scoring against Bolivia twice and Paraguay. In this group, he should fair well and experience a lot of success. However, it is when they get into the round of 16 when we will really see what he is capable of.
Cavani has been lights out since being the main focus of PSG, scoring 10 times in WCQs and essentially every time he steps on the field in France. It would not be a surprise if Cavani is the leader in goals after group play. Godin is an anchor in the back and also is a serious aerial threat. What is most worrying is, with Godin getting up there in age, will he be able to deal with quicker players like Salah or Smolov? Regardless, they will generate enough attack to win the group.
Egypt has a real potential to make their name in the world with a solid performance in the group. They have some real potential game changers in Salah (Liverpool, England) and Sobhi (Stoke City, England). They have a player in Elneny (Arsenal, England) that can really show his worth after an on and off few seasons with Arsenal, as well as a leader at the CB position in Hegazy (West Brom, England), who has been arguably one of their best players this year.
Egypt are a solid defensive team, only conceding 4 times (3 to Cameroon) in the African Cup of Nations this year. What they lack is experience on the big stage. This is their first World Cup since 1990, and the question that lies ahead is whether or not everyone on the team, not just Mo Salah, can rise to the occasion and put Egypt on the map. Can players like Abdalla El Said (Al Ahly, Egypt) can continue taking some of the scoring load off Salah when teams focus on shutting him down. That will determine whether Egypt succeed or not at this World Cup. They should be able to handle Saudi Arabia, and they match up well with the Russians. If they can pull a point off Uruguay, they will move into the knockout rounds as the 2nd place team from Group A.
The host nation may or may not have set this up to be the easiest group of the tournament (#warmballers anybody???). But nevertheless, I don’t see them getting out of the group. They may have home field advantage, but they do not fair well in international competitions. They are winless in their last 6 matches, with their last win coming against Tunisia in June. Russia did not qualify for the World Cup in 2010, lost in the group stage of Euro 2012, and the group stages of the 2014 World Cup, topping it off with a last placed finish in the group stages of Euro 2016.
That Russian home field advantage, however, may not mean much at all, as they could not get out of the knockout stages again in the 2017 Confederations cup, which they hosted. If history means anything, Russia will miss out on the Knockout Round of this World Cup as well. Their best chance is if Berezutskiy (CSKA Moscow, Russia) can lock down the back line and not let anything get near Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow, Russia). Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow, Russia) will have to run things in the midfield like he did in Euro 2012 (which is very unlikely), and Smolov (FC Krasnodar, Russia) can tuck away a few chances. If any one of those things falls apart, the stars on Uruguay and Egypt will take advantage of them. And all it takes is one mistake to knock a team out.
Akinfeev is still trying to forget about this one
None of this takes into account, by the way, all the issues with their manager and not having control of the locker room. Add that on top of an already challenging task and things just got a whole lot more difficult.
The Saudi’s are making their first debut since 2006, where they were knocked out in the group stages, after getting one point off Tunisia. They haven’t won in World Cup matches since June and really don’t have anyone that jump off the page. The main player to watch is Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Al Nassr, Saudi Arabi), who netted 16 times in WCQs this year. He might be able to cause that slip up that was mentioned in the Russia description. If he can capitalize on a mistake, he can poke a massive hole in the Russian plans.
However, one player really can’t do it all for a team. Especially when he will be the one who is highlighted and marked tightly in every match. If players like Tasir Al Jassim (Al Ahli, Saudi Arabia) can’t control literally EVERYTHING, they will get picked apart based on pure talent alone. It is very unlikely that they finish any higher than 4th in the group.