32 teams are in the fray

Sportstar - - COVER STORY - N. SUDARSHAN

at the 21st foot­ball World Cup and they have been di­vided into eight groups. The top two from each will make the round of 16. Who will climb up the lad­der? Our pre­dic­tions.

By all counts, Group A is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward. Uruguay will be the team to beat and is tipped to top the group. Rus­sia or Egypt is likely to take the sec­ond spot and, hence, the piv­otal clash will be the June 19 match at St. Petersburg be­tween the two. Mean­while, Saudi Ara­bia is ex­pected to just make up the num­bers.

URUGUAY

Uruguay has a rich World

Cup his­tory. It won two out of the first four edi­tions, in­clud­ing the in­au­gu­ral one in 1930. Even though its best ef­forts since then have been three fourth­placed fin­ishes, it is al­ways in the con­ver­sa­tion. Rus­sia 2018 will be no dif­fer­ent. In Luiz Suarez and Edin­son Ca­vani, coach Oscar Washington Tabarez has one of dead­li­est front twos in the world. And be­hind them, a clutch of promis­ing young­sters are wait­ing to make a name. It was when key com­po­nents of his team – par­tic­u­larly the mid­field – started age­ing that Tabarez turned to the youth. Some of the best tal­ents from the un­der­20 team, such as mid­field­ers Fed­erico Valverde of Real Madrid and Ro­drigo Ben­tan­cur of Ju­ven­tus, were pro­moted to oc­cupy key po­si­tions. This sup­ply line of play­ers is Uruguay’s big­gest strength. Of the last 24 play­ers that Tabrez has added af­ter the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, only three hadn’t fea­tured in ju­nior com­pe­ti­tions. Such youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance, cou­pled with the ex­pe­ri­ence of Ca­vani, Suarez and de­fender Diego Godin, makes it the favourite to top Group A.

Squad

Goal­keep­ers: Fernando Muslera, Martin Silva, Martin

Cam­pana.

De­fend­ers: Diego Godin, Se­bas­tian Coates, Jose Maria Gimenez, Max­i­m­il­iano Pereira, Gas­ton Silva, Martin Cac­eres, Guillermo Varela.

Mid­field­ers: Nahi­tan Nan­dez, Lu­cas Tor­reira, Ma­tias Vec­ ino, Ro­drigo Ben­tan­cur, Carlos Sanchez, Gior­gian De Ar­ras­caeta, Diego Lax­alt, Cris­tian Ro­driguez, Jonathan Ur­re­tavis­caya. For­wards: Cristhian Stu­ani, Max­i­m­il­iano Gomez, Edin­son Ca­vani, Luis Suarez. World Cup record

12 ap­pear­ances

Cham­pion in 1930, 1950

RUS­SIA

It would be fair to say that Rus­sia is in the World Cup only be­cause it is the host. This is prob­a­bly the weak­est Rus­sian squad in his­tory and this has re­flected in the re­sults. At the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup last year, it won just one game and since then, in eight in­ter­na­tional friendlies it has lost four, drawn three and won one. Rus­sia is miss­ing key per­son­nel both in de­fence and at­tack. Three vet­eran de­fend­ers in the Berezut­ski twins, Vasili and Alexey, and Sergey Ig­na­she­vich have re­tired and those ex­pected to re­place them, Vik­tor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya, are in­jured. Coach Stanislav Cherch­esov has used as many as 10 cen­tre­backs in the last two years and still doesn’t know his best pair­ing. The loss of Alexan­der Koko­rin fol­low­ing a cru­ci­ate surgery is a big blow. The Zenit St Petersburg for­ward had scored 19 goals in the first half of the sea­son alone. Mid­field is the only area where Cherch­esov can bank upon some promis­ing ta­lent in Alexan­der Golovin, Alan Dza­goev and the Mi­ranchuk broth­ers, An­ton and Alexsey. Yet, Rus­sia can progress. In the bat­tle for sec­ond spot, if it can beat Egypt, a roundof­16 place will be within grasp.

Squad

Goal­keep­ers: Igor Ak­in­feev, Vladimir Gab­ulov, An­drei

Lun­yov.

De­fend­ers: Mario Fer­nan­des, Vladimir Granat, Sergei Ig­na­she­vich, Fy­o­dor Kudryashov, Ilya Kutepov, An­drei Semy­ onov, Igor Smol­nikov.

Mid­field­ers: De­nis Ch­ery­shev, Alan Dza­goev, Yuri Gazin­sky, Alexan­der Golovin, Daler Kuzyaev, An­ton Mi­ranchuk, Alexan­der Same­dov, Alexan­der Yerokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Ro­man Zob­nin.

For­wards: Ar­tyom Dzyuba, Alexei Mi­ranchuk, Fe­dor

Smolov.

World Cup record 10 ap­pear­ances Fourth place in 1966

EGYPT

No team at the World Cup is prob­a­bly as de­pen­dent on one player as much as Egypt is. When Mo­hamed Salah was forced out in­jured dur­ing the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal, it led to mass hys­te­ria. How­ever, it is in­con­ceiv­able that Salah might not play in Rus­sia, even at just 50 per cent fit­ness. While he is with­out doubt among the world’s best at­tack­ing play­ers, Egypt un­der Hec­tor Cu­per is a de­fen­sive set­up. On an av­er­age, it has con­ceded only 0.5 goals per match and in more than three years since Cu­per took the job, Egypt is yet to lose by more than a goal. Scor­ing has been a prob­lem, but as Por­tu­gal showed at the 2016 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship, suc­cess can be achieved by grind­ing through. Be­hind Salah, Mo­hamed El­neny is key to con­trol­ling the mid­field. He was in fine form in the sec­ond half of the sea­son for Arse­nal be­fore in­jur­ing his an­kle. He will def­i­nitely play at the World Cup, but his match­sharp­ness will be tested. Egypt, though, can re­al­is­ti­cally hope to reach the knock­outs, and any­thing less will be deemed a dis­ap­point­ment. Squad

Goal­keep­ers: Es­sam El­hadary, Mo­hamed El­shen­nawy, Sherif Ekramy.

De­fend­ers: Ahmed Fathi, Saad Samir, Ay­man Ashraf, Mo­hamed Ab­del­shafy, Ahmed Hegazi, Ali Gabr, Ahmed El­mo­hamady, Omar Gaber, Mah­moud Hamdy El­wensh.

Mid­field­ers: Tarek Hamed, Mah­moud Ab­del­razik Shik­a­bala, Ab­dal­lah El­said, Sam Morsy, Mo­hamed El­neny, Mah­moud Kahraba, Ra­madan Sobhi, Mah­moud Trezeguet, Amr Warda.

For­wards: Mar­wan Mohsen, Mo­hamed Salah.

World Cup record

2 ap­pear­ances

13th in 1934

SAUDI ARA­BIA

Not fin­ish­ing last should be the prime tar­get for Saudi Ara­bia. Ar­gen­tine Juan

Antonio Pizzi is its third man­ager since Septem­ber and he is yet to take charge in a com­pet­i­tive game. Whether he will be able to im­press upon his play­ers the kind of foot­ball he wants to play – pos­i­tive and open – is a big ques­tion mark. Per­haps the de­ci­sion to send three of its stand­out at­tack­ers Salem al­dawsari, Yahya al­shehri and Fa­had al­muwal­lad on loan to Spain may have helped in this. But the three recorded only two ap­pear­ances be­tween them, com­pletely de­feat­ing the pur­pose of gain­ing valu­able ex­po­sure and also leav­ing them short of match prac­tice. As a re­sult, goals will be hard to come by and Saudi Ara­bia will in­stead fo­cus on so­lid­ity. There is ex­pe­ri­ence in the back­line in the form of 34­year­old Osama Haw­sawi, but the de­fence might come un­done against a pacey for­ward line. Hence, in spite of be­ing placed in a rel­a­tively easy group, Saudi Ara­bia will find it ex­tremely tough to reach the sec­ond round.

Squad

Goal­keep­ers: Mo­hammed Al­owais, Yasser Al­mu­sailem, Ab­dul­lah Al­mayuf.

De­fend­ers: Man­soor Al­harbi, Yasser Al­shahrani, Mo­hammed Al­breik, Mo­taz Haw­sawi, Osama Haw­sawi, Omar Haw­sawi, Ali Al­bu­laihi.

Mid­field­ers: Ab­dul­lah Al­khaibari, Ab­dul­malek Al­khaibri, Ab­dul­lah Otayf, Taiseer Al­jas­sim, Hous­sain Al­mo­gahwi, Sal­man Al­faraj, Mo­hamed Kanno, Hat­tan Ba­he­bri, Salem Al­dawsari, Ye­hya Al­shehri.

For­wards: Fa­had Al­muwal­lad, Mohammad Al­sahlawi, Muhan­nad As­siri.

World Cup record

4 ap­pear­ances

Round of 16 in 1994

GETTY IM­AGES

Tal­ented lot: Uruguay is the favourite to top Group A.

GETTY IM­AGES

Prob­lems aplenty: It would be fair to say that Rus­sia is in the World Cup only be­cause it is the host. This is prob­a­bly the weak­est Rus­sian squad in his­tory and this has re­flected in the re­sults.

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