2018 World Cup: Analysis of Russia’s Group

The biggest sporting event in the world takes place in Russia for the first time ever from 14 June 2018. On Friday, the 32 teams who have qualified discovered their fate and know exactly who they will be facing in the Group Stages, with the draw taking place at the Kremlin. For once, a site of disseminating information elsewhere.

Here is a closer look at Group A of the World Cup Russia 2018. They will face Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in what seems like a promising group for the hosts, who need to qualify from the group in order to avert a rather public embarrassment. Statistically, Russia received one of the easiest draw’s possible, with only Croatia seeded lower than Uruguay in Pot Two and Senegal & Iran seeded lower than Egypt in Pot Three, however, Iran and Croatia are both daunting prospects and their poor rankings position belies their true talent. This fact, coupled with Russia avoiding a daunting European opponent such as England, Spain or Switzerland, it seems to be nigh on a perfect draw for the hosts.

 

Match Day One

Opponent: Saudi Arabia

Location: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow

Date: 14 June 2018

The oil-kings matchup in what has been billed as arguably the most uninspiring and insipid match in World Cup history. However, it is a great draw and opening game for the hosts. The two sides are mathematically the two worst involved in the whole tournament – according to FIFA World Rankings, at least.

Although these two sides are statistically the lowest ranked; Russia’s position particularly belies their ability. They are 65th due to their circumstance of the past 18 months; unable to play any competitive qualifying fixtures, they rely upon friendlies against, sometimes, undesirable opposition – even facing club side Dinamo in a “hybrid friendly” back in September.

READ MORE: Sbornaya – Dinamo Moscow: Another RFU Farce

On the pitch, Saudi Arabia are a much stronger outfit than their reputation suggests; otherwise, they would not have qualified for the tournament ahead of both Australia and South Korea. Inspired by leading goal scorer, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, the 30-year-old od Al-Nassr who scored 16 goals in qualifying, the Saudi’s unlike Iran and South Korea do not play boring defensive football, but were actually quite expansive during qualifying.

They were led throughout qualifying by Dutchman Bert van Marwijk, who led the Netherlands during Euro 2012. They lost just three games under his tenure with a win ratio of 65% during this period. However, he couldn’t agree upon a new contract with the Saudi Football Federation and left just days after qualifying. Ever since, the side have been in decline, losing to Ghana, Bulgaria and Portugal under his replacement, Argentinian Eduardo Bauza, who himself was sacked after just five games in charge a week before the draw was made.

Now, they go into the tournament with their third manager in under six months – Chilean Juan Antonio Pizzi – only able to defeat minnows such as Jamaica and Latvia and without a World Cup win since 1994. Stanislav Cherchesov’s men will look to defeat the Saudi’s and set-up a strong platform to navigate the rest of the group.

 

Match Day Two

Opponent: Egypt

Location: Stadium St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg

Date: 19 June 2018

The record seven-time African Nations’ Champions have long been one of the most formidable outfits in the continent, but simply unable to reach a World Cup finals. A 28-year long wait was finally ended with qualification to Russia, and with both a fanatical fanbase and star player Mo Salah will be a more daunting task than many presume.

This is a resurgent side from the one that fled to qualify for even the African Cup of Nations from 2012-2015, with Liverpool winger and joint-top scorer in the English Premier League Mohamed Salah central to the sides’ fortunes. He has scored an incredible 36 goals in just 52 games for Egypt, including the qualification-confirming penalty in a victory over Congo in Alexandria. However, it’s not just Salah’s presence, but a successful system which is at the heart of Egypt’s success.

Argentinian coach Hector Cuper favours a somewhat conservative style, preparing his team to defend deep, and in number, before breaking with blistering pace led by Salah. Ramadan Sobhi and Kahraba. Three wingers with both power and pace in abundance. Cuper’s style has led to a few murmurs of dissatisfaction from both fans and players, however, it is undeniable how successful his tactics have been. In fact, although this system has been the key change to their success, it is in part because the whole thing is designed to get the best out of Salah. The two are complementary and have been a match made in heaven.

Russia will hope that Salah is not on form, but can also secure victory by taking advantage of some of Egypt’s weaknesses; an inability to play possession football and change it up and 44-year-old Essam Al-Hadary in goal, an experienced but ageing and error-prone keeper. Stanislav Cherchesov himself has deployed a similar tactic to Cuper and it will be interesting to see which side takes the initiative in St. Petersburg.

 

Match Day Three

Opponent: Uruguay

Location: Cosmos Arena, Samara

Date: 25 June 2018

The final group game takes place in Samara, on the steppe region of southern European Russia. Many without knowledge of both Russia and Russia football have cast aspersions on the location, questioning why it will not be held in Nizhny Novgorod (the nation’s traditional third biggest city) or Kazan (the fastest-growing city and home to Russia’s second-biggest religion), two cities much closer to both Moscow and St. Petersburg. But it is clear; Samara as a region is one of the most fanatical areas of Russia in terms football. It is Russia’s “North-East England”, or “Southern Italy”, a hotbed of football and home to many stars in the national team such as Alan Dzagoev, Roman Zobnin, Stanislav Kristyuk and Ilya Kutepov thanks to the local Yuri Konoplyov Academy. Until recently, local side Krylia Sovetov’s ageing Metallurg Stadium could boast the highest attendances in the whole of Russia, and the new Cosmos Arena, replacing the Metallurg is shaping up to be a beautiful arena to play football in.

If Russia goes into the third group game in a position able to win the group, this fanatic support will create a wonderful atmosphere ahead of the sternest test in the group stages; a star-studded Uruguay. Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin are all experienced players of fantastic ability who regularly play and revel in Champions League football. Cavani will spearhead the attack having scored 10 goals in qualifying, while Suarez has been involved in seven of Uruguay’s last 13 World Cup strikes. However, a newer, younger crop of talent is also emerging to replace these over-30s and have blossomed early; Federico Valverde (19) and Nahitan Nandez (21) have become frequent starters under Oscar Tabarez, the leader of Uruguay’s reinvention and reinvigoration on a national stage since 2006.

Although now aged 70 and diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome resulting in him being wheelchair-bound at all times, Tabarez will lead Uruguay to a third world cup in a row in high spirits, with the second-best record in South American qualifying. However, Uruguay do tend to struggle against teams that sit deep and play on the counter due to their ageing squad and slow defenders such as Sebastian Coates – especially considering the recent improved results and signs of promise.

READ MORE: Russian National Team: signs of progress towards 2018 World Cup

Although Egypt will provide a stern test, I’d expect Russia to qualify considering the recent auspicious signs of progress, and if they perform as recently with the draw against Spain and the unfortunate loss to Argentina, they may be able to defeat Uruguay. This may prove a step too far for Sbornaya, but if Portugal and Spain both qualify from Group B, whether they finished first or second may be negligible.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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