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The World Cup provides Russia another opportunity, on the heels of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, to present its best face and emphasize the majesty of a nation so rich in tradition and history.
Staging a smoothly run and entertaining tournament on pristine fields in gorgeous stadiums means far more than how the Russian national team, the Sbornaya, fares this summer, and that’s a good thing. South Africa in 2010 is the only World Cup host that has failed to reach the second stage of the competition. Might Russia be the second?
It’s possible, although the hosts received a dream draw — Group A is by far the weakest of the eight first-round groups — and can kick off the Cup with a victory June 14 in Moscow over Saudi Arabia, the only team in the field ranked lower in FIFA’s always-curious rankings. Uruguay is the class here, and watch out for Egypt, which has real talent and, in Mohamed Salah, one of the most celebrated players on the planet.
Russia has a veteran attack, a wonderful contingent of up-and-coming midfielders, and a revamped defense in front of captain Igor Akinfeev, an error-prone goalkeeper whose goof against Mexico ended the home team’s run in the opening stage of last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup. There is quality and grit throughout the lineup, and a run to and into the knockout phase is doable but hardly expected. The ceiling isn’t very high.
Stanislav Cherchesov, a former goalkeeper who played in two World Cups for Russia and amassed 49 caps for the Soviet Union, CIS and Russia, took charge following an awful Euro 2016 performance and has changed things greatly. He’s brought youth onto the backline while switching to a 3-5-2 alignment that underscores the mostly home-based team’s strengths farther up the field.
The frontline is solid with mercurial Aleksandr Kokorin in support of Fyodor Smolov. Kokorin, who had a goal at the 2014 World Cup, has scored 19 times this season for Zenit St. Petersburg but is dealing with a knee injury. Smolov, with 52 goals in 73 league games over the past three seasons with Krasnodar, is the star.
The players to watch are in midfield. Aleksandr Golovin, who will be 22 by the time the World Cup kicks off, impressed greatly at the Confederations Cup and could be one of the breakthrough stars this summer. Twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk, who are 22, are just as dynamic.
The Russians’ advantage, of course, is home field, and they are counting on victory in the opener before the June 19 showdown with Egypt in St. Petersburg, which likely will determine which team will join Uruguay from Group A in the Round of 16.
Expectations aren’t very high for Saudi Arabia, but there’s a lot of talent here — if perhaps not the means to utilize it successfully. The Green Falcons missed the past two World Cups after playing in four straight starting in 1994, when Saeed Al-Owairan’s 75-yard run to score against Belgium provided great joy, but Dutchman Bert van Marwijk efficiently guided them through Asian qualifying. He abruptly departed after discord with the Saudi federation, replaced by Argentine Edgardo Baeza, who lasted five friendlies.
Juan Antonio Pizzi, who guided Chile to the 2016 Copa America Centenario title but failed to reach the World Cup, took charge just before the draw in December. How well he can navigate a landscape marked by conflicting interests among the ruling elite will be vital if the Saudis are going to succeed, whatever “success” might mean. Pizzi played for Spain at the 1998 World Cup.
The go-to men are left winger Yahya Al-Shehri, dubbed the “Arabian Messi”; striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, who netted 16 goals in qualifying; playmaker Nawaf Al-Abed; and rising forward Fahad Al-Muwallad, whose goal to beat Japan in the qualifying finale booked the Falcons’ trek to Russia.
Egypt is among the more tantalizing teams in the tournament. The Pharaohs, who last made the World Cup in 1990, have exquisite talent but play a deeply conservative style under Argentine coach Hector Cuper. No complaints about the results — they reached the African Cup of Nations final last year and have conceded more than one goal just once in 30 games — but the sit-and-counter tactics limit what the magicians farther up the field can summon.
The big name is striker-of-the-moment Mohamed Salah, who turned the English Premier League on its head this year, scoring 32 goals in 36 league games (plus 11 more in UEFA Champions League play), and winning the major player-of-the-year honors. However, Salah’s World Cup is in jeopardy after he suffered a significant shoulder injury in Liverpool’s Champions League final loss to Real Madrid. Salah is optimistic he will be able to play, but it remains to be seen how close to 100 percent he will be. Winger Mahmoud “Trezeguet” Hassan’s direct runs are a nifty complement, but midfield leader Mohamed ElNeny is uncertain after picking up an ankle injury with Arsenal.
The defense is anchored by captain Essam El Hadaryi, the goalkeeper, who at 45 will become the oldest player in World Cup history when he steps onto the field against Uruguay on June 15 in Yekaterinburg.
The clear favorite in Group A is Uruguay, which is transitioning slowly as the remnants of the side that reached the 2010 semifinals and won Copa America the following year ages out. The big names are these veterans: Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani, who paced South America’s qualifiers with 10 goals, and Barcelona’s oft-controversial Luis Suarez are in the conversation about the finest attacking tandems in the Cup, and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin anchors a fine defensive unit.
Oscar Tabarez is taking his fourth Uruguay squad to the World Cup, and this one advanced simply, finishing second in South America (after facing intercontinental playoffs in four straight campaigns). At 71, he’ll be the oldest manager in Russia, and the longest-serving, too. His second stint has topped a dozen years and is four months longer than Germany boss Joachim Löw’s. He prefers an attacking style out of a 4-4-2 formation, which ought to glide nicely through group play, almost more conservative tactics might be required later on.Tabarez has infused youth into midfield, and how well these youngsters fare — especially 19-year-old Real Madrid phenom Federico Valverde, who has been on loan to Deportivo La Coruña, and Boca Juniors standout Nahitan Nandez, just 22 — could determine how far La Garra Charrua can go.