World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group A hopefuls

We go through the hosts, Mohamed Salah's men and more in the first of an eight part World Cup preview series.

World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group A hopefuls
Can Igor Akifeev help Russia in potentially his final World Cup? (photo: Getty Images / NurPhoto)

Each day we preview four new World Cup nations. Can they win the ultimate process and secure the role of reigning World champions?

Russia

Known as: Sbornaya

Address: Moscow, Russia

Best previous role: Group stage

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

There are few strengths, to be honest. We're not in the best shape heading into this thing, the run to the Euro 2008 semi finals seems a decade ago because it is! 

Goals are an issue, we've been shut out in three of our last five games. Things aren't particularly brilliant at the back either, we've conceded three goals in three of those five games. A 3-3 draw against Spain in November wasn't too bad.  

What happened last time out?

Having topped a qualifying group containing Portugal to get into the 2014 World Cup, things looked good as we were drawn in a fairly promising group. However, two points from three games wasn't nearly enough, Algeria and Belgium progressing ahead of us.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

Nothing until the main thing kicks off, bar a friendly against Turkey. We've got Saudi Arabia first up in the tournament curtain raiser, one that we'll need to win for any chance of qualification. 

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

Given our lack of attacking impetus, defensive solidity will be key. We'll look to be smart on set-pieces, hoping to use our passionate home fanbase to drive us on.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

Igor Akinfeev will play a key role in keeping the side calm under pressure. He's our captain and has over 100 appearances for the national team.

In terms of attacking quality, Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev - formerly of Real Madrid - is a name that most on the continent will be able to pick out. Striker Artem Dzyuba has managed 11 goals in 23 appearances for Russia, can he add to that?

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Young Aleksandr Golovin could play a big part in helping unlock opposition defences. The creative midfielder will carry huge hopes on his 22-year-old shoulders, a good tournament could be the spark he needs for a much muted move to one of Europe's top clubs.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

Hopefully having hosted an excellent World Cup, despite a poor performance. Getting out of the group will be difficult enough, kicking off with a win against Saudi Arabia is a realistic highlight.

Embed from Getty Images

Egypt

Known as: The Pharaohs

Address: Borg El Arab Stadium, Egypt

Best previous role: Group stage

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Our squad is a nice mix of young, talented players and experienced veterans who hope to make our nation proud and make a name for ourselves. Despite having Mohamed Salah in our ranks, we are a defensively set up squad that some top sides have struggled to break down as of late, including Colombia and Portugal. In our first 32 games under Hector Cuper, we only conceded 18 times.

However, we have had a serious issue with how we concede. Our defence has struggled to defend against the cross and have conceded goals this way more than any other, something you wouldn’t expect from a defence featuring Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr.

What happened last time out?

The 1990 World Cup in Italy can best be described as a tournament of missed opportunities. We came in dead last in our group, but England only won the group with four points as they were the only side to record a win in the group.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

We just played a 0-0 draw with Colombia a couple days back, and we are traveling to Belgium for one last friendly before the World Cup begins. We have our opening match on June 15th against Uruguay and then we face the hosts Russia four days later. Our group stage rounds up with a crucial meeting with Saudi Arabia on June 24th.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

Defence is our first priority, so we will look to punish sides on the counter attack with pace upfront and the goal-scoring threat of Salah. Against weaker sides such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, we may be able to work the ball through our midfield and establish possession, but won’t be too bothered if we end up having to play direct football.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

It must be Salah. He finished setting the record for most goals in a 38 game season in England with 32 goals and was integral in Liverpool’s march to the Champions League final. Pace, skill, and finishing, Salah has it all and will be looking to showcase his talent on football’s grandest stage. He might miss out on our opener against Uruguay due to a shoulder injury, but should be good to go against Russia and Saudi Arabia.

On the defensive end, Hegazi and Gabr will have the task of anchoring our defence. And if they can figure out how to stop the cross, Egypt could be very difficult to score against and could find themselves a place in the knockout rounds.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Mahmoud “Trezegeut” Hassan had a breakout year in Turkey, tallying 13 goals and six assists for Kasimpasa. He has already told the press that he hopes he can replicate his club form in Russia, and we hope that he can emerge as another goal-scoring threat to pair up with Salah.

We also have our captain, Essam El Hadary, in between the sticks to help bolster our defence. At age 45, he has won multiple African Cup of Nation trophies and is our most experienced player. He knows how to win, and we believe he still has what it takes, despite his old age.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

We’ll most likely be at home, but we hope to come home proud that we were able to make it out of the group stage. More importantly, we hope to go home with our first ever victory in a World Cup match.

Saudi Arabia

Known as: Green Falcons

Address: King Abdullah Sports City, Jeddah

Best previous role: Last 16, 1994

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

We’re excited, we’ve waited 12 years to taste the World Cup once again. Nobody knows what to expect from us because… neither do we!

Saying it’s been an eventful period since we qualified is an understatement. The manager who oversaw our qualification, Bert Van Marwijk, departed and his replacement Edgardo Bauza bizarrely lasted only a month. 

Former Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi has had no time to prepare with players, most haven’t played football for six months! In January, nine of our countrymen joined seven Spanish teams on loan - a disaster for us as they have barely featured. Also, the squad will only feature players who play their club football in our native country.

That said, there is no pressure on us, we’re proud to be the lowest ranked team.

Our 1996 success presented our last win at a World Cup. But knowing we’re facing our Egyptian rivals, we’re desperate to end our run. 

We believe we’re hard to beat – as shown in qualifying – and rely on our pacey wingers to launch us on the counter attack.

What happened last time out?

Drawn in a group with a Spain side that were building towards their 2010 success. Finished bottom of the group with a point – gained against Tunisia in the opening match.

Ukraine hit us for four but we responded with a narrow 1-0 defeat against the Spaniards, who topped the group with maximum points with eight goals scored.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

Yes, three. We’ll have our backs against the wall when we face the hosts Russia in the World Cup opener on June 14.

Six days later, we come up against Uruguay. Results in those two games will decide if our meeting with rivals Egypt on June 25 is the end of our magical journey.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

Absorbing the pressure. We know we don’t have the skill to control a game but we’re confident we can make the quick transition from defence to attack. We have nothing to lose and the tag ‘the underdogs’ will no doubt suit us.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

The two Hawsaki’s. Osama and Omar Hawsaki will stand at the heart of our defence.

At the age of 34 and 32, respectively, their experience and leadership is going to be crucial if we are to succeed in being tough to beat. On the attacking front, we pin our hopes on Mohammad Al-Sahlawi as his record of 28 goals in 38 games speaks for itself.

Any wildcardss that might help you out?

For the youngest member of the squad, Abdallah Al-Khaibari (21), the World Cup stage could be the making of him.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

On the plane home. If we manage to win a game, we’ll be more than happy!

Uruguay

Known as: La Celeste

Address: Estadio Centenario, Montevideo

Best previous role: World Cup winners, 1930, 1950

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

We boast a number of world-class players in our squad, with Luis Suárez, Diego Godín and Edinson Cavani the most instantly recognisable names amongst our 23-man squad. We finished second to Brazil in qualifying and have lost just once in the last 12 months - a 2-1 defeat to Austria in November 2017.

We possess a largely young and unrefined midfield which could work for or against us in Russia, with players such as Rodrigo Bentancur and Lucas Torreira still very much in the early stages of their careers.

What happened last time out?

An opening game defeat to surprise package Costa Rica put us on the back foot, but we recovered in the next two games with victories over England and Italy to finish second - although Suárez's antics in the latter stole the headlines. We exited the competition in the last 16 with a disappointing 2-0 defeat at the hands of Colombia.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

None to begin with. Our only pre-World Cup fixture is against minnows Uzbekistan, which should give us a confidence boost before our opening match against Egypt.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

Our classic 442 formation allows us to supply balls into front two Cavani and Suárez - who are more than capable on the floor as well as in the air. Our only pre-tournament fixture should be straight forward and perhaps allow us the opportunity to test different systems.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

Our all-time top scorer Suárez is undoubtedly our key asset in attack with 50 goals in 97 caps, while strike partner Cavani comes into the tournament on the back of another goal-filled season at PSG with 38 in 45 club appearances.

In defence meanwhile, captain Godín and his young Atletico Madrid team-mate José Giménez are a strong pairing at centre-back and will look to strengthen the foundations for our attackers to build upon in Russia.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

We have a number of youngsters in our ranks who could make a name for themselves this summer. Central midfielder Torreira has made a name for himself after impressing for Sampdoria in Serie A over recent seasons while 20-year-old Juventus midfielder Bentancur is another man looking to thrust himself into the limelight.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five y̶e̶a̶r̶s̶ weeks?

Exiting the tournament in the round of 16 once again after a gutsy but ultimately fruitless showing in the tournament - our glory days are still some way off returning.