Group A is one of the most open segments of the first round of the 2018 World Cup, largely due to the inclusion of host nation Russia in Pot 1 of the draw. Ten years ago Sbornaya looked to be on the brink of challenging for major honours, with Guus Hiddink’s charges even reaching the semi-finals of the European Championship in Switzerland. That proved to be the pinnacle rather than the start of something more, however, and Russia head into this summer’s tournament at arguably their lowest on-field ebb for a long while.
Indeed, one of their worst tournament upsets was Euro 2016, when they amassed a single point from meetings with England, Wales and Slovakia and were one of only eight teams eliminated before the knockout phase. The likelihood is that they would not even have qualified for this World Cup had they not been chosen as hosts, and it is therefore difficult to see them getting out of the group.
Despite that, the odds on Russia advancing to the last 16 are slim (4/11 with Karamba), so there is not much value in placing your money on Stanislav Cherchesov’s side even if you do expect them to advance.
Russia begin their campaign against Saudi Arabia on Thursday, a game which neither side can afford to lose. The Green Falcons have had a turbulent few months: Bert van Marwijk led them through the qualification campaign before resigning, while his replacement Edgardo Bauza lasted in the job for only two months.
The Saudis then turned to Juan Antonio Pizzi, whose favoured style of play is a great deal more attacking than that of Van Marwijk. Fahad Al-Muwallad and Salem Al-Dawsari will be tasked with leading counter-attacks down the flanks, but Saudi Arabia surely lack the requisite quality to progress – the 7/4 offered by Sportnation on them failing to collect a point is tempting.
Uruguay, the favourites to win Group A, are one of the most intriguing sides in the entire competition. Long-serving manager Oscar Washington Tabarez is now into his 12th year of his second spell at the helm, and there are notable differences between the current team and its predecessors.
The two-time world champions have always been known for their grit and resolve, characteristics which seem to be intrinsic to Uruguayan soccer. Those attributes remain and there is still a feeling among soccer betting fans that La Celeste are most comfortable when their backs are pushed up against the wall, but the emergence of some talented young midfielders – namely 20-year-old Rodrigo Bentancur, 22-year-old Lucas Torreira, 24-year-old Giorgian De Arrascaeta – has led to the promotion of a more possession-based game.
Uruguay also possess a fearsome central defensive partnership in Atletico Madrid team-mates Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, a fearsome strike duo in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, and a strong team spirit which should make their collective amount to more than the sum of its parts. They should have little trouble in topping this section, but the bookmakers’ odds reflect their position as strong favourites and it is therefore worth looking elsewhere.
888sport provide a price of 3/1 on Uruguay being eliminated at the quarter-final stage, while 8/1 is available on a semi-final exit.
Liverpool fans were not the only ones concerned when Mohamed Salah went down clutching his shoulder in last month’s Champions League final; Egyptians everywhere also exchanged concerned looks with their first World Cup finals since 1990 on the horizon. Salah is still hopeful of being fit to participate in the group stage, but he is likely to miss the Pharaohs’ opening game against Uruguay in Yekaterinburg on Friday.
Egypt are incredibly reliant on the former Chelsea and Roma forward, so his fitness could determine their fate in Group A. Hector Cuper is a conservative manager who will look to pack men behind the ball and break forward quickly through Salah, whose precise finishing is fundamental to the successful functioning of the system.
Even at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, where Egypt were among the pre-tournament favourites and only narrowly lost the final to Cameroon, Cuper instructed his side to play on the back foot and discouraged unnecessary risks in possession.
They may not be thrilling to watch in the coming weeks, then, but Egypt should be effective enough to qualify for the knockout rounds. Karamba offer 8/5 on them doing exactly that, while six group stage points looks good value at 7/1 with top soccer betting sites. In terms of their overall progress, taking up odds of 2/1 at 888sport on a last-16 exit could be a wise investment.