With World Cup 2018 about to start, Emabis takes a look through Group A and recommends some potential angles of interest for punters.
Group A features hosts Russia, Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
With no requirement to qualify as hosts, Russia’s last competitive fixtures were in the 2017 Russian-based Confederations Cup where they failed to qualify from their group after defeats to both Portugal and Mexico. Since then, Russia has continued to disappoint in a series of friendly games which saw them secure only one win – a 4-2 home win to South Korea in October 2017. Home defeats to Argentina, Brazil and France may have been expected but not so their draws to Iran, Turkey and Austria. And despite a 3-3 home draw to Spain in mid-November, it's notable that it was a winter fixture on home soil.
Since the Soviet Union first became Russia at the 1994 World Cup, they have failed to qualify for three World Cup finals and exited at the group stages of the other three – USA 1994, Korea / Japan 2002 and Brazil 2014. The notoriously sensitive hosts will undoubtedly view a repeat group exit as an embarrassment on the world stage. One they will be eager to avoid after their recent Olympics' ban. Unfortunately for Russia, Stanislav Cherchesov carries a very average squad into the tournament outside key midfield trio Aleksandr Golovin, Aleksei Miranchuk and Alan Dzagoev (if the notoriously injury-prone CSKA man can stay injury free). So Russia will need to maximise home advantage. But if any nation can leverage home advantage to skew the odds in their favour, Russia can. And will.
The two-time World Cup winners arrive in Russia as many shrewd judges’ dark horses. Certainly their favourable Group draw supports this view. As does their star forward duo of PSG’s Edison Cavani and Barcelona’s Luis Suarez who netted fifteen goals between them in qualification (behind Brazil).
But history suggests Uruguay may get found out in the knock-out stages. Uruguay qualified for the knock-out stages of both South Africa 2010 (finishing fourth) and Brazil 2014 (Last 16) but only won one knock-out game from five. Their qualification also suggests they may be vulnerable against top-tier opposition as, despite all the experience of Atletico Madrid's Diego Godin in defence, they conceded twenty goals – one more than Columbia, four more than Argentina and nine more than Brazil.
It’s surprising that the seven-time African Cup winners have only qualified for two World Cups before now – Uruguay in 1934 and Italy in 1990 – and failed to win a single match at either. But Russia could be different; mainly thanks to Liverpool star Mo Salah – the Egyptian King – whose five goals in five qualification games (six in total) catapulted Egypt to the top of Group E ahead of Uganda, Ghana and Congo.
Unfortunately for Egypt, their prospects may have been dealt a fatal blow by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos. Ramos injured Salah in the Champions League final when wresting him to the ground and Salah will now miss Egypt’s opener against Uruguay at a minimum. He is currently scheduled to feature in their second game against Russia but with limited training time since the Champions League final, his match sharpness and form will be less than preferred. And without a fully-fit Salah, it’s difficult to see where goals come from in Hector Cuper’s ultra-defensive set up.
It is Saudi Arabia's fifth appearance at the World Cup finals after four consecutive tournaments from 1994 to 2006 saw them collect only two wins. The Green Falcons qualified for the World Cup stage after a two-round qualification in which they topped Group A ahead of UAE, Palestine, Malaysia and Timor-Leste before finishing second to Japan in Group B ahead of Australia, UAE, Iraq and Thailand.
Whilst Saudi Arabia held a good goal scoring record against poor qualifying opposition, they are the weakest of the four Group A teams on paper. Despite friendly wins over Algeria and Greece, before a narrow 2-1 defeat to Italy, it is notable that none of their opponents had anything to play for. Instead Saudi’s most recent 3-0 defeat to Peru in Switzerland appears more reflective of prospects. At the time of writing, Saudi Arabia has not played their final friendly against Germany (in Leverkusen) but it is difficult to foresee anything other than a German win even if a “weakened” side is fielded.
Let’s start with the easy one first, Saudi Arabia finish bottom of Group A.
I think the draw has favoured Uruguay in meeting Egypt first (given Salah’s injury status) and Russia last. So, for me, Uruguay’s potent fire power sees off Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia to top the Group. Which they will need to do to avoid the Group B winners, likely Spain, in the Last 16.
Which leaves the competition for runner-up between hosts Russia and Egypt (who play each other on 19 June). If Salah was fully fit, given his form this season, I would give Egypt a strong chance of beating an average Russia side. But Salah will not be fully fit or match sharp, so I’m going for Russia to make the very most of their home advantage to edge qualification.
Predicted Group Standings
- Saudi Arabia
Recommended Group Bet
Uruguay are 4/5 to win the Group which looks on the short side to me. Instead, I'm going to take Russia to qualify second to Uruguay at 2/1.
Recommended Group Match Bet
Uruguay will be keen to top the Group to avoid Spain in the Last 16. They meet Russia in their final Group game and I'm surprised at the odds available given their motivation and superior quality.