As 32 teams get ready to battle to lift the World Cup in Russia this summer, we take a closer look at the dark horses and tournament favorites.
Just weeks remain until the 21st FIFA World Cup kicks off and it is the first time that the world’s most famous football tournament has been hosted in Eastern Europe. A selection of the finest players on the planet will descend on the country for the four week festival of football but who will be this year’s dark horse?
Will Russia’s home advantage translate into success for Stanislav Cherchesov’s men? Can Mohamed Salah translate his current form at Liverpool to the world stage and will the deadly Uruguayan strike-force of Suárez and Cavani fire their side to the latter rounds?
The host nation will be hoping that home soil will give them an advantage to make a run to the knockout stages, given that they are among the lowest ranked teams in the entire competition. Russia reached the semi-finals of the European Championships in 2008 but it has been slim pickings since then as performances have declined in the last decade.
Rumors of clashes between senior players and the coaching staff could threaten to undermine Russia’s tournament but if Stanislav Cherchesov can manage to get his side on the same page there is more than enough talent in his squad to make an impact on the competition.
The big game experience of the likes of Yuri Zhirkov and Denis Glushakov could prove crucial in guiding the younger members of the squad through what will be the biggest tournament of their professional careers. Alan Dzagoev, while he hasn’t quite delivered on his early promise, will be a threat in the final third but it is the experience of the 104-times capped goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev which will prove to be the foundation from which the Russian challenge is built.
Egyptian talisman Mo Salah will be crucial to The Pharaohs hopes of qualification from Group A. The Liverpool forward is quickly becoming one of the most influential attacking threats in world football but one can’t escape the notion that if you can stop him, you can stop the entire team. Egypt qualified for the World Cup with relative ease but will face a far sterner test this summer and it remains to be seen if the prodigious talents of Salah will be enough to separate them from the pack.
Salah is unquestionably the biggest influence on the Egyptian side but the likes of Arsenal’s Mohamed El Neny, Aston Villa’s Ahmed Elmohamady and Stoke’s Ramadan Sobhi must not be underestimated.
Despite a less than successful Copa América campaign in 2016 which saw them fail to advance past the group stages, Uruguay qualified for World Cup 2018 with relative ease by finishing second behind Brazil in the South American CONMEBOL league system, where their placement above Argentina and Colombia should infuse La Celeste’s with a surge of confidence ahead of the finals in Russia. Winners of the first ever World Cup in 1930, Uruguay endured a period of being in the international wilderness from 1990 onward until exploding into life in 2010 with a fourth placed finish in South Africa, largely down to the attacking nous of their trio of deadly strikers: Diego Forlán, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez.
Eight years ago the likes of Suárez and Cavani were inexperienced youngsters but will travel to Russia this summer as two of the most proven, lethal strikers in world football. Together they boast an astonishing 92 international goals between them and will ask stern questions of any defense they face in the competition. Add to that the likes of captain Diego Godín and experienced midfielder Cristian Rodríguez and you have the bones of a team which will be hopeful of advancing to the latter stages.
Rank outsiders in Group A, one would suspect that positive results will be a rare commodity for Saudi Arabia in this summer’s World Cup. Boasting a team comprised almost exclusively from their domestic league, Saudi Arabia will be something of an unknown quantity for the majority of viewers when the tournament begins. They haven’t managed to qualify from a World Cup group stage since 1994 and their placement in the tricky Group A suggests that their run of bad luck won’t be ending this summer.
Given the fact that their domestic competition isn’t exactly one of the most watched in world football, many of the Saudi Arabian players will be unknown to all but the most ardent football fans across the globe but Al-Nassr striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi has hit the net 28 times in just 36 appearances for his national team – a strike rate which will require attention from opposition defenses.