Countdown to the World Cup: The lowdown on Groups A and B

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World Cup fans ready for action in Red Square, Moscow.

By TAS MAVRIDIS

After a long qualifiying campaign stretching back for some countries to early 2015, the 2018 World Cup finally gets under way with Russia taking on Saudi Arabia in the opening match on Friday morning (1am AEST). 
As one of the most-anticipated events on the sporting calendar, the World Cup will give many players the chance to achieve a life dream of representing their country at the biggest tournament in the world. 
 
Group A and B will see the return of nations such as Egypt and Morocco who have been absent for the finals,  as well as past champions Uruguay and Spain who will be looking to add to their respective trophy hauls.  
 
Tomorrow, a close look at groups C and D. 

Group A preview

Group A of the World Cup has seen Uruguay draw into what on paper seems like a relatively straight forward group.

With the South Americans boasting a far superior ranking and overall star power compared to the other teams, many believe that this group will see the remaining sides battling for second place.

TEAM PROFILES

Russia

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Hosts Russia qualified for the World Cup by being the host nation.

Playing in their 11th world Cup, Russia will look to make the most of their home ground advantage as they attempt to qualify out of the group for the first time since 1986.

Stanislav Cherchesov has been the coach of Sbornaya since 2016 with his appointment aimed at leading the side towards the World Cup. 

With a squad based of players mainly from the Russian Premier League, CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev looms as the most important player.

Having represented his country 57 times since his debut in 2008, Dzagoev will be a critical cog in the Russian midfield and will be viewed by opposition teams as one of the main with the capability to cause the most damage going forward.

However, the lead in form for the hosts has been concerning with the side last recording a victory over New Zealand in the first game of the Confederations Cup in 2017.

Since then the Russians have failed to win in six matches.

Tactically Cherchesov has stuck with playing three at the back. The versatility in this formation comes from switching between a flat five midfield and two forwards or a midfield diamond forming part of a 3-4-2-1 formation with Dzagoev given attacking license in behind the forwards in both cases.

Saudi Arabia

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The Green Falcons qualified for their fifth World Cup after finishing in second place of group B in the AFC, qualifying region behind Japan and just in front of Australia.

Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi will lead Saudi Arabia after the departure of Bert Van Marwijk following the qualifying campaign.

Pizzi himself was involved in World Cup qualification where he failed to get Chile to the tournament.

With a squad entirely based in the Middle East, Mohammed Al-Sahlawi looms as Saudi Arabia’s most dangerous player.

Al-Sahawi was the star in qualifying netting a staggering 16 goals including a goal against Australia.

With 28 goals in 39 matches, Saudi Arabia will need their star forward to be in full flight if they are to get out of this group.

The lead-up form of Saudi Arabia hasn’t been promising, with the most recent friendlies seeing Pizzi’s men suffer losses against Italy (2-1) and Peru (3-0).

In both these matches, Pizzi lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation suggesting that the aim has been to develop some continuity in style in the lead up to the opening game against Russia.

Egypt

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The Pharaohs qualified for their third world cup and first since 1990 after topping a tricky qualifying group which included 2010 quarter finalist Ghana.

Qualification was secured in dramatic fashion with star man Mohamed Salah’s 94th minute penalty sparking scenes of pandemonium across Egypt.

Argentine Hector Cuper has been at the helm of Egypt since 2015, a stint which has included an appearance at the African Cup of Nations Final where Egypt lost against Cameroon.

The team will be led by Liverpool star Salah, who is coming off a remarkable campaign which saw him net over 40 goals.

However, an injury in the Champions League Final has left all of Egypt sweating on the fitness of their celebrated forward.

Salah is expected to play some part in the tournament, with the talisman likely to be the difference in determining whether Egypt can qualify out of the group.

Salah’s absence in the recent friendlies has been evident with the side failing to record a win since 2017 (the game against Congo that sealed their qualification).

Their best result since this match was in a friendly against Portugal where two injury time Ronaldo goals saw Egypt go down 2-1 after taking the lead through Salah. 

Cuper has settled on a formation of 4-2-3-1 allowing Salah to play in his favoured position of the right wing with Arsenal midfielder Mohamed El Nenny playing in one of the holding midfield positions.

Uruguay

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Two-time winners Uruguay qualified through the tricky South American round robin competition in second place behind Brazil with nine wins, four draws and five losses.

Oscar Tabarez took over the reigns of Urugay after their failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and has since led the side to Copa America Victory in 2011 as well as fourth place in the 2010 World Cup.

With the star duo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front, La Celeste have one of the most prolific forward partnerships in international football.

With 92 international goals between the pair, its clear to see why many fancy Uruguay as a potential dark horse.

The Barcelona and PSG stars have been in prolific form at club level and boast imposing records at international level.

Suarez has scored 50 goals in 97 national team appearances as well as 31 goals in the 2017/18 season for Barcelona.

Along with their dangerous forwards, Uruguay are renowned for forming a tight compact defence difficult to break down.

With Atletico Madrid Star Diego Godin at the heart of defence this tournament will be no different.

PREDICTION

Uruguay should have too much quality for this group and should qualify in top spot, with Egypt to qualify should Mo Salah come up fit and play a part in the tournament.

FIXTURE (AEST)
Friday 15 June: Russia v Saudi Arabia @ 1am, Egypt v Uruguay @ 10pm
Wednesday 20 June: Russia v Egypt @ 4am
Thursday 21 June: Uruguay v Saudi Arabia @ 1am
Tuesday 26 June: Uruguay v Russia @ 12am, Saudi Arabia v Egypt @ 12am

Group B preview

Group B has seen European heavyweights Spain and Portugal drawn alongside Morocco and Iran.

Winning the last three European Championships between them, Spain and Portugal will fancy their chances against this group but an opening round match up could be crucial in determining the campaigns of both nations.

TEAM PROFILES

Spain

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La Roja qualified for the World Cup after going undefeated (winning nine matches) in a tricky group that included Italy.

After the retirement of legendary coach Vicente Del Bosque, Julen Lopetegui will take charge of his first major tournament as the national team boss.

After two disappointing title defences at the 2014 World Cup and then Euro 2016, the revamped Spanish squad has added fresh faces in Marco Asensio and Iago Aspas, while still maintaining experience in the form of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

With some of the biggest names in world football, one player who will be at the centre of everything is David Silva.

The Manchester City midfielder is undoubtedly one of the best midfielders in Europe.

With 120 caps and 35 goals for Spain, Silva can unlock any team with a pass, something that has earned him the nickname “Merlin” by many of his teammates.

Pre-tournament form for Spain has been impressive with the team last losing against Italy in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016.

Recent results include draws against Switzerland and Germany as well as a staggering 6-1 win over Argentina.

Tactically, La Roja are likely to line up in a variation of a 4-3-3 with either Diego Costa, Aspas or Rodrigo up front and the likes of Silva, Isco, Iniesta providing passing support from the midfield.

Portugal

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Portugal qualified for the World Cup after narrowly topping their qualifying group which included Switzerland.

Fernando Santos has been coach of the national team since 2014 and was at the helm of Portugal’s remarkable Euro 2016 Victory.

The European Champions have undergone a slight transformation in personnel in the two years with ever presents like Ronaldo, Pepe and Quaresma still leading the side.

The likes of Renato Sanches who had a breakout tournament in France has since lost form with the hero of the final Eder also not making the cut.

The undoubted star of this team is Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid star and captain of the national team has for a decade been one of the best players in the world.

With 81 goals in 150 games for his country as well as 44 goals in the 2017/18 campaign, there is no doubt that Ronaldo is ready to step up and lead his country again.

Portugal will go into the tournament fresh off a 3-0 win over Algeria and two draws against Tunisia and Belgium.

Tactically, Santos aims to ensure his sides are set up in a solid defensive manner.

As a result, the manager’s preference is a 4-4-2 formation with Pepe and Jose Fonte at the heart of defence and Ronaldo deployed as one of the two forwards.

Morocco

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The Atlas Lions’ qualified after topping a group including the Ivory Coast, recording three wins and three draws in the final stage of qualifying.

Herve Renard took the reign of the national side in 2016, leading the team to their first appearance at the World Cup since 1998.

As the only coach to win the African Cup of Nations with two countries, Renard no doubt possesses a great understanding of African football and will hope to convert this to success on the world stage

Majority of success for the Moroccan team will lie in the defensive organisation due to their lack of big name and prolific attacking players.

With Juventus’ Medhi Benatia captaining the side, Morocco have shown their defensive qualities conceding only two goals in five friendlies.

Tactically, Renard has mixed things up depending on the opposition with his side switching from playing with a back three or a back four with five men across the midfield in two different matches in the space of a week.

Iran

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Team Meli qualified undefeated in group A of AFC qualifying ahead of South Korea.

Coached by Carlos Queiroz since 2011, the Iran head coach has past experience which includes head coaching roles at Real Madrid and Portugal.

One of the highest ranked teams in Asia, Iran have a squad of players that includes a mixture of locally based players as well an array of players plying their trade across Europe.

Despite qualifying undefeated, Iran only managed 10 goals in 10 games through qualification with AZ Alkmaar forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh being their most inform attacking players.

With 22 goals in 39 appearances in the Dutch Eredivisie in 2017/18 there is no doubt that Jahanbakhsh will be full of confidence to lead his country in Russia.

However, so far, he has failed to convert this form on the national stage.

On the other hand, Sardar Azmoun has not been as prolific for club side Rubin Kazan, but his record of 23 international goals in just 33 matches suggests this could be his time to shine.

Tactically Quieroz has stuck with a variation of a 4-5-1 with the hope of staying compact defensively and not giving the opposition room to exploit.

PREDICITON

On paper the European heavyweight pairing of Spain and Portugal look a class above in this group with their opening game most likely destined to determine who finishes first.

FIXTURE
Saturday 16 June: Morocco v Iran @ 1am, Portugal v Spain @ 4am
Wednesday 20 June: Portugal v Morocco @ 10pm
Thursday 21 June: Iran v Spain @ 4am
Tuesday 26 June: Portugal v Iran @ 4am, Spain v Morocco @ 4am