For football fans, the World Cup is like waking up on Christmas morning every day for a month. It’s better than any birthday you’ve ever had, more exciting than any party you’ve ever attended and outweighs the importance of any other sporting event you’ve ever witnessed.
And it’s not close.
When all eyes turn to Russia this summer for the 21st edition of the greatest tournament known to mankind, you’re going to need to be prepared. Not just with learning names such as Messi and Ronaldo, or researching teams like Brazil and Spain, but rather analyzing overlooked faucets of the tournament such as underrated Polish keepers and game-changing Uruguayan youngsters.
Don’t worry – I’ve got you covered. I watched 872 qualifying matches over two and a half years so you didn’t have to. Now it all comes down to this.
64 matches. 32 Countries. 11 Cities. 1 Champion.
The wait is nearly over.
June 14th, 11 AM – Russia vs Saudi Arabia, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, FOX*
June 19th, 2 PM – Russia vs Egypt, St. Petersburg Stadium, St. Petersburg, FOX
June 25th, 10 AM – Russia vs Uruguay, Samara Arena, Samara, FOX
The host nation will look to benefit from being drawn into the tournament’s weakest group as they try to advance to the knockout stage of a major competition for the first time since the 2008 European Championships. At the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil they crashed out of the tournament while drawing two and losing one, only managing to score two goals. At the Euro’s in 2016 they managed a similar result as they again only scored twice en route to a one draw and two loss record.
Head Coach Stanislav Cherchesov has been trying to ease Russia’s goalscoring woes by implementing a 3-5-2 over the course of the last two years. He’s found varied success as the Russians have earned impressive 3-3 draws against the likes of Spain and Belgium, but also been on the losing end of matches against Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and the Ivory Coast. The fans in Russia will not be satisfied with another two-goal tournament performance, and with Cherchesov fighting for his job it’s likely that we’ll see the Russians push towards goal early and often.
One of the only downsides of hosting the World Cup is the lack of meaningful matches a team plays together in the years leading up to the tournament itself. While the rest of the world has been battling just to get to Russia, the host nation has been playing friendly games with a mere fraction of the intensity of World Cup qualifiers. The lack of preparation was evident in the Euro’s in 2016. At times it seemed like the Russians had the talent to compete with the rest of Europe, but they struggled to put together a full 90 minutes. Concentration will be key for this squad as they go up against teams like Egypt that have been playing in do-or-die situations for months.
Russia will open the tournament on June 14th against arguably the tournament’s weakest side: Saudi Arabia. Expect them to find the back of the net multiple times in this fixture, but their next two opponents will offer a much greater challenge. If they’re going to find success against Uruguay and Egypt it’ll have to come in the form of goals from forwards Fedor Smolov and Artem Dzyuba: the only two Russians with 10+ international goals. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev should be able to do enough to keep his squad in the game, but the spark will have to come from up front.
June 14th, 11 AM – Saudi Arabia vs Russia, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, FOX
June 20th, 11 AM – Saudi Arabia vs Uruguay, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don, FOX
June 25th, 10AM – Saudi Arabia vs Egypt, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd FS1
After missing the last two World Cups, the Saudis should be thrilled to have even made it to Russia. They finished second on goal differential in Asia’s notoriously weak Group B, and they’ve been labeled by many as the tournament’s worst team.
This squad is full of unknowns. For starters, manager Juan Antonio Pizzi has only been in charge of the team for a few months, and he hasn’t managed a meaningful match yet. Nobody is sure exactly what Pizzi is going to bring to the table. It’s expected that he’ll continue to play a 4-3-3 like previous managers Bert van Marwijk and Edgardo Bauza, but don’t be surprised if the Green come out with some new tactics in their opener against Russia.
The players themselves have had as many question marks as their new manager. Over the last year the Saudi federation devised a plan to send numerous first-teamers to play for Spanish sides during the La Liga club season. While in theory this should have prepared them for the international stage, many of the players wound up sitting on the bench for the majority of the season. The loan clause had no requirement regarding playing time, and the Saudi internationals largely failed to break into the first team with their Spanish clubs. They now enter Russia with a severe lack of experience to pair with a sizable talent disadvantage.
What we do know is that unlike the Russians, the Saudis can score. Mohammad Al-Sahlawi was one of the joint top goal-scorers during qualification after netting 16 goals, and the team has an overall knack for getting forward. They love to absorb pressure and then counter with wing-backs joining the attack down the side of the pitch. Taisir Al-Jassim then drops back from a central midfield role and plays long balls to both the wingers and wing-backs. Combined with the teams aggressive and physical nature, it’s a style that has potential to yield tons of goals, especially when facing teams like Russia that play a back three.
If Saudi Arabia is going to achieve the unthinkable and advance out of the group it’ll most likely come in the form of goals off counter attacks, and a stellar effort by team captain and leader of the defense, Osama Hawsawi.
June 15th, 8 AM – Egypt vs Uruguay, Ekaterinburg Arena, Ekaterinburg, FS1
June 19th, 2 PM – Egypt vs Russia, St. Petersburg Stadium, St. Petersburg, FOX
June 25th, 10 AM – Egypt vs Saudi Arabia, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd FS1
After falling in the qualifying playoff in both 2009 (Algeria) and 2013 (Ghana), Egypt finally capitalized in 2017 in the most dramatic way possible – a 95′ minute extra-time Mohamed Salah penalty kick.
Salah is the heart and soul of this Egyptian team – the first to qualify for a World Cup since 1990. Quite simply the name of the game for the Pharaohs is to play stingy defense, and hope Salah can make something happen from his spot on the right wing.
Hector Cuper will line his men up in a 4-2-3-1 this summer as the Egyptians look to come out to the world as one of the top defensive squads in the tournament. Mohamed Elneny and Tarek Hamed lead the defense as an underrated, efficient defensive midfielder pair, and they’re further backed up by Ahmed Hegazi, the talented West Brom center-back. With this formation Cuper is essentially starting six defenders, daring teams to try and penetrate his Egyptian side. Against the likes of Russia and Saudi Arabia, Egypt should have no problem defending.
Scoring goals, on the other had, might be tricky. Outside of Salah the Egyptians have a serious lack of firepower. With his status in doubt after suffering a collerbone injury in the Champions League final in May, Cuper’s men will be hard-pressed to find the back of the net.
Assuming Salah can find it in himself to play, the Egyptians best chance to score will be with flick ons from their lone striker Ahmed Hassan Kouka as he attempts to find talented wingers Salah and Ramadan Sobhi in space. This strategy worked just well enough to qualify the African nation, but they only managed to score seven goals over their final five games – all against teams that failed to qualify for the World Cup. If they are to advance to the knockout stage it’ll be because of a strong defensive effort paired with a lucky bounce or two up front.
As an interesting side note, the Egyptians have a larger age gap between their youngest and oldest player than any other team in the tournament. Captain and goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary (45) looks to be the oldest player to ever play in a World Cup match, while the Stoke City winger Ramadan Sobhi (19) hopes to have a coming out party of sorts as he tries to attract attention from a bigger club.
June 15th, 8 AM – Uruguay vs Egypt, Ekaterinburg Arena, Ekaterinburg, FS1
June 20th, 11 AM – Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don, FOX
June 25th, 10 AM – Uruguay vs Russia, Samara Arena, Samara, FOX
The CONMEBOL runners up are the only team from Group A that has a legitimate shot at making a deep tournament run. They have the perfect mix of experience and youth, and after finishing fourth at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, fans are expecting nothing short of another semifinal appearance in Russia. Oscar Tabarez is back for his second stint with the South American side as they look to contend for the title.
At the front of Uruguay’s 4-4-2, PSG’s Edinson Cavani and Barcelona’s Luis Suarez are a nightmare for opposing defenders. They both have enough pace and strength to makes runs behind defenders, and knock their opponent off the ball when need-be. Rodrigo Bentancur will often join them at the top of the attack, molding the Uruguayan formation into a 4-3-3, with experienced midfielder Cristian Rodríguez and youngsters Nahitan Nández and Giorgian De Arrascaeta supporting the newly-formed front three. This attack is enough to make a fool out of any back four in the world, but they’ll definitely be challenged right out of the gate in their first match with the defensive stalwarts from Egypt.
An underrated difference maker for Uruguay could be the 22 year-old midfielder, Lucas Torreira. He had a great season in the top flight of Italian football this past season playing for Sampdoria. With a knack for goal and the ability to make long, stretch passes, Torreira could torment tired defenders by coming off the bench late and playing balls to Cavani and Suarez.
Uruguay will field the same spine of players that they did in 2010 and 2014. Along with the already-mentioned Suarez and Cavani, Fernando Muslera will again start in goal, and Athletico Madrid teammates Diego Godín and José Giménez will start at center-back. This is likely the last World Cup that this group of players will all participate in together, and it’s not hard to imagine them all coming together for one last special run.
The only potential distraction this Uruguay side could face would come in the form of a Luis Suarez lapse of concentration. In 2010 he famously deflected a ball off the line with his hand, and in 2014 he bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. These were not isolated incidents, and Suarez has long been under public scrutiny for his antics.
Can’t decide which Country to support this summer in Russia? Check out this quiz from the folks at FiveThirtyEight.
*All times listed in Eastern Standard Time.