It is the group featuring the hosts, who will begin proceedings against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. The past and the present of Liverpool will also be in focus with Luis Suarez’s Uruguay and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt completing the group.
For the home support, who are enjoying a World Cup at home for the first time, the expectations are muted. Their form in recent tournaments is nothing to boast of. But history shows that the hosts have managed to have a good run, more often than not.
Group A: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay
Russia host a World Cup for the first time and they have their task cut out for a place in the knockout stages. Never in their history have they progressed past the group stages. Their Confederations Cup campaign last year also ended on a whimper.
However, the Euros two years ago showed that Stanislav Cherchesov’s side have resilience in their ranks. The challenge now is to use home support to their advantage, something that many a host from the past has done. Their form going into the tournament is nothing to boast about. Russia have been going through a wretched run of form during the friendlies leading up to the event.
Their fortunes in the tournament will depend on how they can handle the Egypt and Uruguay ties.
Key player: Fyodor Smolov
Smolov is a late bloomer and can be deadly on the counter-attack. His form also depends on how well midfielder Alan Dzagoev links up with him up front.
World Cup record: This is only Russia’s fourth World Cup. The three other times they participated – 1994, 2002 and 2014 – they exited in the group stage.
Prediction: With Mohamed Salah’s fitness being a worry for Egypt and Uruguay expected to top the group, Russia will just sneak into the knockout stages.
It’s Argentina and Portugal all over again. One player is bigger than the team here and the world awaits with bated breath over Salah’s fitness. The Liverpool winger was injured in the Champions League final against Real Madrid and is still on the road to recovery.
The Pharaohs, record seven-time African champions, have qualified for the World Cup for only the third time. They begin their Russian campaign on June 15 against twice former winners Uruguay.
The Egyptian football federation said after Salah’s injury that he could be out for three weeks, meaning he would miss their opening Group A match but could then be available against Russia on June 19 and Saudi Arabia on June 25.
Supporters at the Cairo ground, waving the national flag, also yelled enthusiastic approval for the team’s other star players – goalkeeper Essam El Hadary and midfielder Abdallah El Said.
It was Salah who fired Egypt into the World Cup and rightfully, been selected as one of the stars to light up the tournament. Despite club loyalties, the whole of Egypt unites while watching Liverpool’s games. But there is more to this side than just Salah. They have earned what is only their third World Cup in their history.
Several of their players ply their trade in England and have one of the most experienced managers in the game, Hector Cuper. Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny is another player that will be keenly watched during the tournament.
Key player: Mohamed Salah
The 25-year-old’s incredible goal tally is not just limited to Liverpool, where he smashed 44 in all competitions this season. With 33 goals, Salah is well on his way to becoming his country’s top-scorer someday. Will he be fit? The World Cup will be poorer without the flying winger’s presence.
He has been picked for the World Cup squad despite having been forced out of the Liverpool’s 3-1 Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in tears clutching his left shoulder.
Many of his fans had feared he would miss the World Cup altogether, but his appearance in Cairo has reignited expectations in The Pharaohs’ key striker.
World Cup record:
Egypt made history in 1934 when they became the first African side to play in the World Cup. Their next appearance was in Italy 1990. After a 28-year break, Egypt are back in the mix again. They have not progressed past the group stage.
Prediction: Salah might not hit the heights of the recently concluded season. Egypt don’t have many potent goalscorers in their ranks, and that will be the reason why they might narrowly lose out for a place in the last-16. Their pre-tournament form is nothing to boast about, and have struggled to win games.
Uruguay faltered in the last World Cup after reviving their fortunes in the 2010 edition, where they reached the semi-finals. Can two-time champions repeat the feat this time around? That can be pinned down to how their star strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez perform in front of goal.
There are many from the current squad who played in the World Cup eight years ago. Four of their players have more than 100 caps. Goalkeeper Fernando Muslera and Suarez should also join the list during the course of the World Cup. There is a vast amount of experience in the squad. And stability too with wily old horse Oscar Tabarez still in charge.
Key player: Luis Suarez
It is strange to pick Suarez over Cavani as it is Paris Saint-German’s all-time top scorer who had the better season, and was instrumental in his side reaching the tournament. Cavani topped the qualifying charts with 10 goals.
Suarez, though, is a match-winner and change the course of proceedings in the blink of an eye. The Barcelona forward has seldom not turned up for his country and will be eyeing for an image makeover. One of the defining moments of the previous World Cup was Suarez biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini from the back – he got a lengthy suspension for his act.
World Cup record:
Being the inaugural winners in 1930 and pulling off one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, beating Brazil in the 1950 final, Uruguay have a glittering history to boast of. This is their third consecutive campaign.
Uruguay look well set to go deep into the tournament. Quarter-finals should be a bare minimum for this side.
Saudi Arabia may not have pedigree to match up to say, Uruguay, but have produced one of the greatest World Cup moments with Saeed Al-Owairan almost doing a Diego Maradona in 1994. Seldom has anyone from the Gulf nation come close to matching that piece of individual brilliance. They finished second in Asian qualifying behind Japan and even registered a win over the latter.
However, it will come as a surprise if they get anything from this as the rest of the teams in the group would have identified them as whipping boys. As a part of their preparation, nine Saudi players, loaned to Spanish clubs to improve their level before the World Cup left without hardly playing in what ended up as a “fiasco”.
They will have identified the match against Egypt as their most likely chance to get something out of the group stages.
Key player: Salman Al-Dawsari
Salman Al-Dawsari played for Villarreal this season and played a important hand in earning his side a draw against Real Madrid. His side was 0-2 down when Dawsari entered as a substitute.
World Cup history:
Saudi Arabia were Asian Cup winners in 1984, 1988, 1996 and were Confederations Cup runners-up in 1992. The Saudi’s missed out on the 2010 and 2014 editions after playing four consecutive editions.
Prediction: Saudi Arabia will struggle to get a point on the board.