Spearheaded by Barcelona forward Luis Suarez, two-time World Cup winners Uruguay are the favorites in Group A at the 2018 tournament, but hosts Russia will fancy their chances of qualifying in the top two after a kind draw.
Egypt – built around a stingy defense – will be hoping Liverpool star striker Mohamed Salah has something left in the tank after a goal-laden season. Saudi Arabia, the lowest ranked of the four teams, will take a largely domestic-based squad of players. It would be a big surprise for them to go any further than the group stage.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER?
Mohamed Salah (Egypt): €168 million* ($199 million)
*According to CIES Football Observatory
ONE TO WATCH?
Fahad Mosaed Al-Muwallad (Saudi Arabia)
The jet-heeled winger, 23, scored the goal that sent the Saudis to the World Cup and has been called “the Saudi Messi” (no pressure then). The Al-Ittihad player was one of nine Saudi internationals loaned to Spanish La Liga clubs in January under a deal aimed at giving the players top level experience ahead of the tournament. It hasn’t gone exactly to plan and Al-Muwallad has played just ten minutes so far for his club, Levante. Now he has the chance to show the world, and Spanish fans, what he can do.
COACH TO KEEP AN EYE ON?
At 71, Óscar Tabárez will lead Uruguay to his and their third consecutive finals and his fourth World Cup overall (he also coached Uruguay at the 1990 tournament). Known as El Maestro (The Teacher), he is credited with transforming the national team but will be under pressure to ensure the small South American nation meets expectations at home.
All fairly friendly between these four, diplomatically speaking. Russia and Saudi Arabia’s shared history has at times been frosty (particularly during the Soviet-Afghan War), but last year King Salman became the first ever Saudi monarch to visit Russia. The two countries celebrated by signing a joint investment deal worth several billion dollars.
The ‘away’ kits are better than the home versions. Uruguay’s changed white strip, made by Puma, gets the nod.
MATCH ADVERTISERS WILL BE SCRAMBLING FOR?
Uruguay vs. Russia is in the last round of fixtures and could well be a battle between who finishes first or second. Egypt vs. Uruguay, on the other hand, is the crucial first match for each side and will likely feature three of the world’s best attackers – Salah for Egypt and Suarez and Edinson Cavani for Uruguay.
WORLD CUP NERDS ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO…
Egypt goalkeeper, Essam El-Hadary, becoming the oldest man to play at a World Cup. If he makes it on to the pitch, the 45-year-old will replace fellow goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon in the record books. The Colombian was a sprightly 43 when he appeared at the 2014 World Cup.
DO EXPECT …
Luis Suarez to do something controversial. At Brazil in 2014 he developed a taste for Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder (and was banned for four months) and in South Africa in 2010 was sent off in a quarter-final after handling to prevent a last-minute Ghana goal.
DON’T EXPECT …
Russia to get past the quarter-finals at best. Even with home advantage, they would need the sort of ‘home’ decisions South Korea received in 2002 to compensate for a limited squad.
WILL ANY OF THEM WIN IT?
Uruguay qualified second from the grueling South American qualifying group. They have the pedigree and a mix of talented youngsters and hardened veterans.
But no, the winners probably won’t come from Group A.