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2018 FIFA World Cup Russia: Group A Preview

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Host nation Russia is joined in Group A by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay. What teams will be expected to advance, and which players should be on your fantasy radar?

Mohamed Salah - Egypt - FIFA World Cup
He’s not playing for the host country, but plenty of attention in Group A will be focused on Egyptian dynamo Mo Salah.
Photo by Robert Hradil/Getty Images

The official 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Fantasy portal has not opened yet, but with the competition less than a month away, it’s never too early to start previewing the groups. When the game does start, we will set up a Never Manage Alone “Beat the Bloggers” group that you will want to be sure to join.

Let us start with Group A, which features the host nation, a status that Russia will want to use to every advantage. The star power looks to come from Egypt and Uruguay, while Saudi Arabia enters as the heavy underdog. In probably the most wide open group of the bunch, there’s definitely a real possibility for surprise.

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URUGUAY

FIFA Rank: #17

Betting odds to win: 33/1 (bet365)

Qualified via: 2nd place in CONMEBOL (behind only Brazil and ahead of Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile, among others)

Manager: Oscar Tabarez

2014 World Cup Result: Round of 16 (lost to Colombia)

Probable Formation: 4-4-2

Uruguay would have been the clear favorite of this group if Russia were not the host nation. Even so, La Celeste should be considered the pick to make it through on top, albeit slightly more opaquely.

After finishing in fourth place in the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay disappointed in 2014 by losing its first knockout stage game, 2-0 to Colombia. However, finishing second in a tough group ahead of Italy and England (and behind Costa Rica) was no small feat in itself.

Oscar Tabarez has managed Uruguay since 2006, and why not? He just keeps on winning. A second-place CONMEBOL finish to qualify for the World Cup was impressive. Brazil dominated the group both on offense (41 goals scored) and defense (11 conceded), and while third-place Argentina and fourth-place Colombia made it through with a defensive focus, Uruguay was more attack-minded as its 32 goals scored were five more than any other team not named Brazil.

Uruguayan Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

As such, let’s start on the offensive end with the dynamic forward duo of “Mr. Chompers” Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Suarez holds the record for most national goals scored with 50 (in 97 games), while Cavani is not far behind with 42 (100 games). Suarez is coming off a prolific 25 goal, 11 assist campaign for Barcelona in La Liga, while Cavani wasn’t too shabby with 28 and 6, respectively, for Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1. If you’re looking for a tie-breaker, Cavani outscored Suarez 10-5 in qualifying.

There may not be too many goals to be found from midfield, but Carlos Sanchez is an assist machine, tallying seven helpers in qualifying.

As mentioned, Uruguay does not play an especially defensive style, but don’t take that as reason to avoid their defenders entirely, as Martin Caceres (who plies his trade in Serie A’s Lazio) and Diego Godin (La Liga’s Atletico Madrid) each scored three times in qualifying. Amongst the pair, I’d lean toward Godin, whose starting status seems more certain.

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EGYPT

FIFA Rank: #46

Betting odds to win: 150/1 (bet365)

Qualified via: won its CAF group (ahead of Uganda, Ghana and Congo)

Manager: Hector Cuper

2014 World Cup Result: Did not qualify; this is Egypt’s first appearance since 1990.

Probable Formation: 4-2-3-1

Egypt has been in a barren spell for much of this decade, but things have brightened recently, with a 2nd place finish at the 2017 African Cup of Nations (to Cameroon) and the group win in qualifying that brings it to its first World Cup since 1990. Thus, the Pharaohs go into Russia with plenty of momentum, confidence and hope.

Everybody will have their eyes on the offense led by Mo Salah, but you won’t want to forget about the other end of the pitch. It may surprise you that Egypt scored only eight goals (allowing four) in their six World Cup qualification contests. As well, the team scored only five goals (conceding three) in the six 2017 African Cup of Nations games.

Egyptian Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

Even so, I would be remiss not to start with with the aforementioned superstar, winger Mo Salah, who set a 38-game Premier League record by scoring 32 goals and led Liverpool to the Champions League final in his first season with the club. Salah has notched 33 goals in 57 international games as a one-man machine, with nobody else on the current squad able to claim more than six. Salah scored five of the team’s eight goals in qualifying, including the vital penalty to send the team to Russia. Yes indeed, you will certainly want to consider Salah for your fantasy teams, and there will be no shortage of company in that regard.

Midfielders Trezeguet (a.k.a. Mahmoud Hassan) and Abdallah Said can pop in with the occasional goal, but their main value should come from feeding Salah. Trezeguet had three assists, and Said had two in World Cup qualifying.

For Egypt to advance, it will look to win the defensive battles against Russia and Saudi Arabia. Wing back Ahmed Elmohamady and central defender Ahmed Hagazi, both of whom should be familiar to English football fans, bring the possibility of offensive returns from the back line, while 45-year old (!!!) goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary should emerge as a fan favorite and could prove a cheeky play.

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RUSSIA

FIFA Rank: #66

Betting odds to win: 40/1 (bet365)

Qualified via: Automatically, as host nation

Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov

2014 World Cup Result: Group Stage (3rd place behind Belgium and Algeria, ahead of South Korea)

Probable Formation: 3-5-2

Host nations tend to fare well in the World Cup, and that advantage is what Russia will hang its fur hat on. Of course, the problem with evaluating the host side comes from that very status, since the team entirely avoided the tough European qualification battle. After all, while the team was present at Brazil 2014, Russia did not qualify for the World Cup in 2006 or 2010, so getting through this year would have been anything but certain.

However, we can look back to UEFA Euro 2016. Finishing second in its qualifying group (behind Austria but ahead of Sweden, Montenegro, Lichtenstein and Moldova), Sbornaya secured its fourth straight appearance in the competition. In France, things did not turn out well, though. Following a spirited draw against England, the team imploded, losing 2-1 to Slovakia and 3-0 to Wales, finishing in last place in its group and ending with the second worst goal differential of any team (Ukraine was -5).

Since then, all we can look at is how the team did in friendlies and the 2017 Confederations Cup action (held in Russia). Under coach Stanislav Cherchesov, Russia has compiled an unimpressive record of five wins, five draws and eight losses. This comes despite most of its games being at home. Since it will have home field advantage in the World Cup, it is not really worth looking at how the team has fared on its travels.

Since the 2016 Euros, in its home games Russia has:

  • Three Wins: South Korea (4-2), New Zealand (2-0), Romania (1-0), Ghana (1-0)
  • Four Draws: Spain (3-3), Iran (1-1), Chile (1-1), Belgium (3-3)
  • Seven Losses: France (3-1), Brazil (3-0), Argentina (1-0), Mexico (2-1), Portugal (1-0), Ivory Coast (2-0), Costa Rica (4-3)

While the paucity of wins and number of losses is alarming, the level of competition has been fierce. Not many teams should be ashamed to lose, even at home, to the likes of France, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Portugal or Costa Rica, each of whom is ranked in FIFA’s top 25. Draws against Spain, Chile and Belgium are impressive.

Comparatively now, there is no truly top tier team that Russia has to face in its group. After taking on a slew of international powerhouses in recent times, Russia will be well-prepared to face Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Russian Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

Normally I would point to veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, as the home team in the World Cup should usually have some joy for the position. However, there have been multiple recent injuries to the central back line, including defender Ruslan Kambolov (who has been the subject of a doping investigation), leading 38-year old Sergei Ignashevich to come out of international retirement. With such disarray in defense, clean sheets might be tough to come by. The best option in that realm could be wing defender Aleksandr Samedov who may be able to chip in with attacking returns.

With the offensive end likely proving key to the team’s success, it starts with forward Fedor Smolov, who should lead the line since Artem Dzyuba has suffered a drastic falloff in form with only one goal this season for Zenit Saint Petersburg. Smolov does not have the big profile attached to the overflow of attacking talents littering the World Cup, but he has become a top star in the Russian Premier League with 52 goals and 13 assists in the past three seasons (72 games) at Krasnodar. That is all the more impressive considering that most of the national team is assembled from the Moscow-based sides (CSKA / Dynamo / Lokomotiv), Rubin Kazan or Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Winger Aleksei Miranchuk has tallied 10 goals and 8 assists over the past two seasons with Lokomotiv Moscow, and has notched four goals in 14 international appearances, so he is probably a slightly better bet to go off than midfielder Alexsandr Golovin who has contributed eight goals and six assists in the past pair of seasons with CSKA Moscow, plus two goals in 17 games with the national team.

We all remember midfielder Alan Dzagoev fondly as the joint top scorer (with three goals) at the 2012 Euros, but since then he has been quiet, netting only one international goal. He has battled injury problems, appearing in only 36 games over the past two seasons for CSKA Moscow, delivering only six goals and ten assists. The talent is there to make a return to form, if only his body can hold up.

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SAUDI ARABIA

FIFA Rank: #67

Betting odds to win: 1,000/1 (bet365)

Qualified via: finished second in its AFC group (behind Japan and ahead of Australia, amongst others)

Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi

2014 World Cup Result: Did not qualify; this is Saudi Arabia’s first appearance since 2006.

Probable Formation: 4-2-3-1

Saudi Arabia was in a tight qualifying group, finishing a single point behind winner Japan, while taking the important second spot ahead of Australia via goal difference tiebreaker. (Australia eventually qualified for the World Cup after beating Syria and then Honduras.)

The Green Falcons have appeared in only four World Cups ever, and have only once made it through the group stage (1994, when it was easier to get through; 16 of the 24 teams did so, compared to 16 out of 32 now). The 1994 squad really made a splash, finishing in a three-way tie in its group with Netherlands and Belgium. That thrilling, unexpected run was punctuated by a 1-0 victory over the Belgians at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., which featured an absolutely brilliant, bursting coast-to-coast goal from Saaed Al-Owairian who channeled his inner Diego Maradona and sent football fans near and far into rapturous delight:

In addition to its recent struggles to reach the World Cup, Saudi Arabia hasn’t made it out of the AFC Asian Cup group stage since 2007. This 2018 team is really just happy to be in Russia — rightly so — and as such is doubtful to pose much of a danger. That said, there is no Germany, Brazil, Belgium, Portugal, or Argentina in this group, so the opportunity for a Saudi Arabian shock is there for the taking. Hey, stranger things have happened!

Saudi Arabian Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

If you’re considering Saudi Arabian players, you’re likely doing so to save money so you can afford a bevy of pricey superstars. Unfortunately, right now we don’t know what the player prices are.

There’s always the possibility of a player pulling a Al-Owairian and capturing the imagination of the world this time around. If that is to be the case, the most likely candiate would have to be forward Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, who has scored 28 times in 38 games. In buyer beware news, eight of those goals came in two affairs against minnow of minnows Timor-Leste.

If a goal is going to come from elsewhere, chances are that midfielder Nawaf Al Abed will be the source. Al Abed has scored eight times in his 43 game international career, with five of those goals coming in this latest World Cup qualifying round.

Saudi Arabia may have to adopt a defensive approach often utilized by underdogs, but as always, that’s easier said than done. So while going the defender/keeper route could theoretically pay off, I wouldn’t recommend such boldness unless you’ve got an absolutely amazing fortune-telling talent.

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THE FINAL VERDICT

Enjoying raucous fan support and plenty of familiarity with the environs, host nations tend to make it through to the knockout stage with regularity. That said, visiting Uruguay is the best bet to win this group, boasting no shortage of star power and recent success on the international stage.

Russia would be happy to finish second and get through to the Round of 16, but Mo Salah and Egypt will have something to say about that. Saudia Arabia is the definite dark horse, and it will take plenty of luck for things to break its way. But with this being one of the easiest groups in terms of lacking truly elite teams, this could actually be the spot where the underdog has the best chance.

In terms of picking fantasy players, there are plenty of options, and the focus should probably lean toward the offensive end on balance. Mohamed Salah is going to be the pick of this group, but there are several other options that could pay off as well. From a fan’s perspective, as far as fun, fairly wide open groups go, this should definitely be one to watch!

How do you expect this group to turn out? Are there any players from Group A who you are planning to put in your fantasy teams? Is there anybody else you have your eye on aside from those mentioned above? Let us know in the comments!