These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly-anticipated tournament
Head Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov
Odds to Win: 66-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Goalkeeper and back three aside, the other spots are far from certain. The defence will look to feed direct balls to the wing-backs, who in turn will look to the precociously talented Alexander Golovin to carry the attack into the final third and give Fyodor Smolov something to work with; the latter is prolific at club level but has found providing the same output on the international scene somewhat more difficult. Look for him to try lots of shots from range if a route through the opposition is blocked off. A patient approach is the order of the day from Cherchesov and when they are without the ball, they will look to cut off the space in the centre of the pitch, inviting teams to go wide and play high crosses into the area.
Prediction: A squad decimated by injury in the run-up to the tournament, qualification to the knockout stages would be considered a success. A highly partisan crowd, albeit a fanbase with low expectations, will doubtlessly lift Russia when they appear to be struggling. The hosts will be reliant on Golovin to conjure something up for Smolov or himself and as such, it’s difficult to foresee a glut of chances being created and converted, even with the supposed weakness of their group. I don’t believe they have enough quality to qualify from their group and that outcome would make them only the second host nation (after South Africa in 2010) to fail to do so.
Head Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Odds to Win: 1,000-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Saudi Arabia will look to play on the counter; their main threat comes down the left flank. Yasser al-Shahrani and Salem al-Dawsari are a potent combination that possess a great understanding. The attacking midfield trio are likely to switch positions throughout each game periodically. Taiseer al-Jassim will play quick, long balls to his more advanced teammates and the lone striker. There is a distinct lack of pace in the centre of the back-line, which Pizzi attempts to compensate by deploying them close to their own box.
Prediction: Not quite the whipping boys many other pundits have them characterised as, the Green Eagles will nevertheless find qualification beyond them. That said, a positive result against Russia in the opener is a distinct possibility. Should they gain at least a point, their confidence will be massively boosted. Succumbing to Uruguay is a scenario that is hard to envisage not occurring, so everything would hinge on the final game versus Egypt…
Head Coach: Héctor Cúper
Odds to Win: 200-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Much like Group A opponents Saudi Arabia, the first and foremost consideration for Egypt is to keep things watertight at the back. To that end, two holding midfielders are deployed ahead of the defensive line. The latter of these two, Mohamed Elneny, will perform a key role for the Pharaohs, shuttling between the lines to support the attacking midfield trio. Trezeguet shouldn’t be unduly overlooked. Naturally, all of the media attention will be on Mo Salah (who might just recover from his shoulder injury in time for the first game). That might just play to the winger’s advantage though and his job will be to take some of the creative and scoring pressure off his teammate. The lone striker, probably Marwan Mohsen, will chase down any long balls played up to him, with the aim of either pushing the opponents’ defence further back or creating space for runners from the trio to exploit.
Prediction: Even if Salah hadn’t declared himself fit, I’d still have fancied Egypt to claim the runners-up berth. The defence are rock-solid and are well-marshalled. There are enough outlets in forward areas to suggest they will take the chances they create themselves or gain through opposition mistakes. The last 16 might be as far as they go but that would still constitute success and their run will prove they are much more than a one-man team.
Head Coach: Óscar Tabárez
Odds to Win: 25-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: