World Cup 2018 Group A preview: Uruguay could ravage historically weak group

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Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup. With the tournament approaching, and with 32 team previews available for consumption, it’s time to broaden our gaze and dissect the eight groups.

Call them group previews if you like. But they are more so discussions. There will be stage setting and narrative building. There will be questions to answer and pose. There will be analysis and opinions, plus predictions and more. First up is Group A.

Group A team previews: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay

Group A tiers

Every World Cup group has its own structure; its own unique feel. But a simple numerical alignment, separating the four teams into anywhere between one and four tiers, goes a long way toward framing the discussion. And Group A’s alignment? It’s as clear as can be.

It’s a 1-2-1, with Uruguay leading the pack as the undisputed favorite. Russia and Egypt and neck and neck for the second of two knockout round berths. Saudi Arabia is the extreme outsider. And … man, this group is forgiving.

Weakest group in World Cup history?

Yes, it’s the weakest in World Cup history. And nothing else comes all that close. Compared statistically to the other 28 teams at a given tournament, this crop of four is the worst in the modern era. Only 2014’s Belgium-Algeria-Russia-South Korea foursome provides stiff competition, but its statistical similarity is beefed up by the overall strength of the field four years ago. And nothing prior to FIFA’s expansion to 32 teams could realistically come close to 2018 Group A.

So, how did this happen? Let the accusations of Russian fixing begin …

Russian skepticism

In all likelihood, Russia did not fix the World Cup draw. Sorry to ruin the fun. Group A’s ease is merely a function of the hosts’ right to a spot in Pot 1. Its weakness actually could have been more alarming. Imagine if Russia had drawn Switzerland and Tunisia instead of Uruguay and Egypt? Then maybe we’d entertain the discussion. But Uruguay was one of the top teams in Pot 2. Egypt was middle of the Pot 3 pack.

The fact that so many fans jumped to the conclusion of bribery on July 1, however, underscores a general skepticism of everything Russia heading into the tournament. The hosts will be under the microscope. And, frankly, chances are there’ll be trouble. Chances are that fans will experience racism or homophobia. There could be hooliganism. There could even sporting controversy, pertaining to something like doping. And just think about what the reaction will be when a dubious penalty decision inevitably goes in Russia’s favor …

Suarez and Cavani are salivating

The chief beneficiaries of this kind draw should be Uruguay – and, specifically, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. They’re currently 10th and 11th in aggregate Golden Boot betting odds, and perhaps that’s fair, only because there are two of them. Spoils might be shared.

But James Rodriguez won the award with six goals in 2014. Thomas Muller and Miroslav Klose won it with five apiece the two tournaments prior. Suarez or Cavani could realistically ram in five goals against Saudi Arabia alone. In friendlies and qualifiers since the start of 2016, they’ve accounted for 20 of Uruguay’s 30 goals. The Saudi defense, meanwhile, will look like Sunday leaguers at a World Cup. And Russia’s – which will be missing two starters due to knee ligament injuries – isn’t much better.

Uruguay strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani celebrate during a group stage win over England at the 2014 World Cup. Their group is much easier this time around. (Getty)
Uruguay strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani celebrate during a group stage win over England at the 2014 World Cup. Their group is much easier this time around. (Getty)

Uruguay hype

Casual fans will point to Suarez and Cavani as reasons Uruguay could make a deep run. Educated fans will point to the two frontmen, but also to Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez. As Atletico Madrid’s center back pairing, the two conceded just 22 goals in 38 La Liga games this past season.

Meanwhile, soccer hipsters will launch into five-minute monologues about Nahitan Nandez’s skill and drive from midfield, and Giorgian De Arrascaeta’s playmaking. They’ll rave about Rodrigo Bentancur simply because he’s 20 years old and started three Champions League games for Juventus. They’ll see the words “19-year-old Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde” and get giddy. They’ll connect all those dots to Inter Milan anchor Matias Vecino and think, perfect balance.

There’ll be a happy balance to strike with the midfield hype, though. Does it measure up to Spain’s, or Germany’s, or even Croatia’s? Of course not. But it gives La Celeste energy and skill that previous iterations haven’t had. It can grind out games like it has in the past. It also, however, has the ability to open up and play a bit. Provided it doesn’t get Spain in the Round of 16, it should be favored in each of its first four games.

Mohamed Salah’s health

The early contender for MIBP – Most Important Body Part – at the 2018 World Cup is Mohamed Salah’s left shoulder. Because without Salah, Egypt is borderline hopeless. (That might be a bit harsh; but let’s just say Salah’s contributions are vital.) And 20 days before Egypt kicks off its World Cup campaign against Uruguay, Salah was in tears. Later, his arm was in a sling, having almost been torn off by Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final.

The diagnosis is sprained ligaments, but Egypt’s team doctor, within hours, said he was “optimistic” Salah would be fit for Russia. Salah later said he was “confident.” Hit fitness is imperative if Egypt is to beat Russia to the Group A runner-up slot. But even if he is fit, he won’t guarantee Egypt’s progress.

Salah’s Liverpool-to-Egypt transition

Sure, Salah scored the goal that sent Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990. But he has become a sensation almost solely on the back of his club performances. And his club teammates are quite a bit better than his international teammates. Which begs the question: How much of Salah’s excellence will translate from Anfield to Russia?

The majority of it will. But a not insignificant portion of it was situational. Jurgen Klopp’s system is unique. So is the way Salah interacted and interchanged with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. So is Liverpool’s ability to win the ball high up the field, thus putting Salah and others in position to strike. Circumstances will be quite a bit different with the national team. So Salah’s potency will be at least slightly suppressed.

Saudi Arabia might actually be fun

Saudi Arabia is really bad. We won’t sugarcoat this. But would you rather have a World Cup team be bad and boring? Or bad and fun – even if most of the fun will be had by opponents? Of course the answer is the latter. And Saudi Arabia fits the bill.

Because Saudi Arabia’s players aren’t accustomed to the underdog role. Of the 28 in the preliminary squad, 20 play for the top two Saudi clubs. They run rampant over the domestic league. It’s not possible to just become a plucky, difficult-to-break-down underdog overnight. So the Saudis will come to play football, not anti-football. Their headliners are all forwards. They might just score a goal or two. They also might concede double digits.

Don’t overstate Russia’s terribleness

Russia is 66th in the FIFA rankings, and you are going to see and hear many people cite that fact as a sign of the hosts’ ineptitude. But be careful. The primary reason they rank 31st of 32 World Cup participants is the fact that they haven’t played a competitive game in almost two years. Hosts qualify automatically, so Russia has filled its calendar with friendlies. The FIFA rankings punish friendly-playing, regardless of results. So they’re a silly metric to use for evaluation.

Better metrics include the Elo ratings – which have Russia ahead of Egypt – and betting markets – which have Russia with much better odds to advance. FiveThirtyEight, which presumably factored in Russia’s home field advantage, even had it as the most likely of the four Group A foes to advance.

So yes, Russia is probably the second-worst host side ever, ahead of only South Africa in 2010. But no, it isn’t abject. In Alexander Golovin, Fyodor Smolov and Alexei Miranchuk, it actually has a decent amount of attacking talent. It is the favorite to advance alongside Uruguay.

Group A TV schedule

All kickoff times ET

Thursday, June 14
Russia vs. Saudi Arabia, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Friday, June 15
Egypt vs. Uruguay, 8 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)

Tuesday, June 19
Russia vs. Egypt, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Wednesday, June 20
Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Monday, June 25
Uruguay vs. Russia, 10 a.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)
Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt, 10 a.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)

Group A predictions

Ryan Bailey: Uruguay (1), Russia (2)
Henry Bushnell: Uruguay (1), Russia (2)
Joey Gulino: Uruguay (1), Egypt (2)
Doug McIntyre: Uruguay (1), Egypt (2)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Uruguay (1), Egypt (2)

More 2018 World Cup group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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