So you’re telling me I can watch more Mo Salah? Sign me up!
Yes, yes it is almost here.
Currently, the Soccer World anxiously awaits kickoff for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, which will be the last tournament to feature the traditional 32 teams. Thanks, Gianni.
This installment will be the first of eight, covering all eight groups for this upcoming tournament.
In the meantime, this week, I’ll be previewing Group A, giving you, the Fan, the low-down on what I think is must-know information before the tournament kicks off in June. But hey, what do I know? It’s not like I predicted Mohamed Salah was going to be Premier League Player of the Year back in February.
Oh, wait, I did. Bow before the Egyptian King.
Included below is a category I like to call Guaranteed Game that, just as a heads up, will be a feature where I pick one match and predict the score I believe will be the final one, come the last whistle.
Basically, given my prior predictions, that game’s result is a lock, at least in my mind.
Okay. Enough fooling around. It’s time to talk football.
Russia: The Hosts Look to Height to Escape
Host nation Russia will obviously feed off the home crowd, and they’ll look to blow things wide open.
Aging, yet experienced, striker Artem Dzyuba is always capable of making things interesting on the offensive end. His aerial prowess gives the Russians a real advantage on set pieces, something the hosts will need to capitalize on.
Additionally, the Russians are a very tall and physical team. Of their nine defenders named in the preliminary 23-man squad, six of them stand over 6’0″. And the other three? Two are 5’11” and one is 5’10”. Beware of this height.
Another thing worth noting for this Russian team: the vast majority of their players play in the Russian Super League. Whether it’s with or against, this almost certainly helps with understanding the strengths and weaknesses of their own team, an aspect that could help Russia make a run at the Round of 16.
Egypt: Mo Salah is the Conductor, but There’s More
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last nine months, you know that Mohamed Salah has taken the footballing world by storm. And even that might be an understatement.
The Egyptian winger scored 43 goals in 46 matches for Liverpool this Premier League season. But Salah first became a national hero for Egypt, playing the role of talisman and helping Egypt clinch its first World Cup berth since 1990.
Along with the LeBron James of the World Cup, Egypt also poses a considerably stout defense.
Head coach Hector Cuper imposed a system that has not only helped the Pharaohs to a World Cup berth, but was also crucial to their African Cup of Nations Final run just a year ago.
Don’t overlook Ramadan Sobhi, a budding star for Egypt, whose passing and dribbling brilliance could make the difference.
Do not be shocked if Egypt make the Quarterfinals. Or the Semis. Or the Final. Or even …
Saudi Arabia: Beware of the Silent Beast
Perhaps the team with the least amount of experience, Saudi Arabia is the UMBC of the summer tournament. And that’s not to say that anyone in Group A is the Virginia of the tournament; I’m just pointing out that nearly everyone is writing them off.
Saudi Arabia last appeared in the 2006 World Cup, but they are known for their 1994 Round of 16 run, in the country’s first-ever FIFA World Cup.
That being said, their striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi finished with 16 goals during qualification, which is tied for the best anywhere, in the world. Al-Sahlawi even trained with Manchester United in anticipation for the World Cup, as well.
Add that threat up top, with the former Chilean national team head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi in charge of the reigns, and you’ve got a pretty dangerous Arabian team. They’re almost like, like … UMBC.
Now, I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but Saudi Arabia could be in the Round of 16 come the end of June.
Uruguay: Road to Redemption is in Russia
After a fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and a Copa America title the summer after, Uruguay has been probably one of the most disappointing national teams. Not the worst because, let’s be honest, nothing is worse than the Netherlands team, as of late. I mean … WOW.
Uruguay crashed out of the 2014 World Cup to James Rodriguez and Colombia, who simply smothered them the entire match. And, to make matters worse, Uruguay failed to make the knockout round at the 2016 Copa America Centenario, in a group that featured Jamaica and Venezuela, along with Mexico.
Suarez will have to atone for his chomp on Chiellini this time around. Uruguay’s all-time leading goal scorer should be fine, and with Diego Godin captaining the squad from the back, Uruguay looks, on paper, the best all-around team in this group.
Interesting side note: Uruguay’s current manager Oscar Washington Tabarez was the man at the helm when the Uruguayan’s captured their 2011 Copa America title. So there’s that …
Player(s) to Watch: Mo Salah and Luis Suarez
Easily the two most recognizable players in this group.
Look for the offensive maestros to impose their will on defenses within Group A. Both have the Liverpool attacking-style rooted in them. Salah and Suarez will meet on June 15, in what will be both sides’ first match of the tournament.
Guaranteed Game: Saudi Arabia 1, Russia 0
Look, this is probably worthy of a hot take, but Russia don’t impress me too much.
I think there will be plenty of energy and momentum for them coming in to a World Cup, on home soil, but I think Saudi Arabia is just enough of an underdog to take advantage of Russian mistakes and steal the tournament’s opening match.
Hot Take: Suarez Bites Someone … Again (*sigh*)
I don’t know when. I don’t know who the victim will be. But mark my words: that Uruguayan is ready to feast on someone’s shoulder yet again.
Predictions: Uruguay and Egypt move on
I was tempted to give Saudi Arabia the edge, here, but I just can’t see anyone in this group beating Uruguay.
Maybe Salah can create some offensive brilliance to top the Uruguayans, but I believe the two teams will ultimately play out to a draw. As I said above, I think Saudi Arabia can top Russia. Wouldn’t that be something if Saudi Arabia could also do that to Egypt.
Again, it’s very possible.
Chat me in the comments. Cheers.