Russia couldn’t have hoped for a much kinder draw as the hosts but they will still have their work cut out for them if they are to reach the knockout stages. Uruguay might be outsiders for the actual World Cup but are heavy favourites to top the group with Saudi Arabia the likely whipping boys. That leaves a tussle between Russia and Egypt, who may or may not have Mo Salah fit for the group stages, for second place.
Road to Russia
Uruguay didn’t face too many problems in the difficult South American qualifying section, sealing their place with a win over Bolivia while they also saw off World Cup counterparts Colombia. For Egypt it went right down the wire with a late Salah penalty against Congo sparking scenes of delirium in Cairo while Saudi Arabia nabbed the second automatic spot in their group with a final day win over Japan. Russia qualified automatically as hosts.
World Cup pedigree
Uruguay are by far and away the most successful World Cup team in this group, winning it on two occasions including in 1930 when they hosted the first ever edition. Russia have not had much joy since the days of the Soviet Union – when they finished third in 1966 – while Egypt are competing for the first time since 1990 when they took drew 0-0 against Ireland before exiting in the group stage. For Saudi Arabia it’s been 24 long years without a win at the tournament when wins over Morocco and Belgium saw them through to the knockout stages of USA 94.
They go through their managers quickly in Saudi Arabia with current incumbent – Juan Antonio Pizzi – the third man to hold the job since they qualified for the finals. It’s a different story in Uruguay where Oscar Tabarez leads the country to a fourth World Cup and will do so this year in a wheelchair as he suffers from Guillain-Barre syndrome. Former Soviet Union goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov is the less than flamboyant man in charge of Russia while Argentinean coach Hector Cúper has created a resilient defensive machine with Egypt.
Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani provide most of the star power in the group for but most eyes will be on Salah – assuming of course he has recovered from the dislocated shoulder he suffered in the Champions League final. Can he bring his club form to the international stage and perhaps inspire Egypt to the knockout stages for the first time? Russia are pinning their hopes on Aleksandr Golovin, the youngster having already played 81 times for CSKA Moscow at the age of just 21. At the other end of the spectrum, Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary will become the oldest ever player at a World Cup at the age of 45.
Uruguay will be expected to qualify as group winners while Saudi Arabia look like no-hopers. Russia and Egypt will battle it out for second place with Salah perhaps proving the difference, leaving the hosts crashing out.