Mo Salah, Alan Dzagoev, Luiz Suarez and Mohammad Al-Sahlawi.
Mo Salah, Alan Dzagoev, Luiz Suarez and Mohammad Al-Sahlawi.

Group of Meh! Pool of Death gone wrong

THIS group is first only in the alphabetical sense - by most other measures, it could feasibly be considered the worst at the World Cup.

That's because, on the surface, it looks to be the most favourable group going around.

Hosts Russia enter the World Cup ranked 66th in the world, Saudi Arabia are 70th - and there is no one competing in June and July who are below them in the world rankings.

It's a far cry from the heights of 2008, when Russia launched their hosting bid and had reached the semi-finals of the European Championships.

They do, however, have the advantage of playing on home soil - which is why they're considered better chances than Group A rivals Egypt of springing an upset.

But it remains to be seen whether they'll follow the semi-final path of South Korea in 2002, or bomb out in the group stages like South Africa in 2010.

Saudi Arabia aren't expected to present too many dangers following a preparation beset with controversy and axed coaches, but Egypt has some serious star power and can't be discounted.

THE KEY MATCH

Uruguay v Egypt (June 15, 10pm)

This match could well decide who tops group A and pits one of the world's hottest stars, in Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, against the star-studded group favourites. Uruguay's stable of ageing stars, in 30-year-old strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez and 31-year-old defensive rock Diego Godin, are still a formidable force on the world stage.

TEAMS

Egyptian star Mo Salah is sure to be one of the stars of the Cup.
Egyptian star Mo Salah is sure to be one of the stars of the Cup.

EGYPT

After a 28-year wait, Egypt is back on the biggest stage. It was no easy run, having to overcome Ghana and Uganda to qualify, but the African Cup of Nations runners-up could cause some upsets. Egypt have proven an excellent defensive team, and will rely on that and before turning to the likes of Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Elneny for their attacking spark to jag goals in tight fixtures.

Key player: Is there anyone else? Mo Salah has ripped up the Premier League and Champions League already this season. What's stopping him from doing the same at the World Cup? He scored five times for Egypt last year.

Recent form: Egypt have had a bit of a World Cup hangover since qualification, losing both matches in March, first to Portugal and then to Greece. The loss to Portugal must have been particularly grating as they led for 90 minutes through a Salah goal before Cristiano Ronaldo popped up late with two goals.

World Cup history: They have made just two visits to the big stage, first way back in 1934 and then in 1990. Twenty-eight years ago they were drawn in a group with England, Ireland and the Netherlands. It was no mean feat that they drew against two of them and were perhaps a little unlucky not to progress to the round of 16.

Coach: Argentine Hector Cuper has been in control since 2015, pushing a defensive style which has delivered results, including World Cup qualification and a run to the final of the African Cup of Nations, but left fans disappointed.

FIFA Ranking: 46

Betting: 125-1

Russia star Alan Dzagoev will be one to watch.
Russia star Alan Dzagoev will be one to watch.

RUSSIA

One of the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup, although that is somewhat misrepresentative. With 27-year-old Alan Dzagoev pulling the strings in central midfield, Russia has enough weapons up front to make defences sweat. Aleksandr Kokorin - who has enjoyed a banner season, scoring goals for fun for Zenit St Petersburg - will lead Russia in the final third. Russia have never reached the knockout stages of a World Cup.

Key player: Igor Akinfeev is Russian football royalty, having spent his entire 15-year career at powerhouse CSKA Moscow and the 31-year-old skipper has more than 100 international caps for Russia. He's a calming presence at the back.

Recent form: Without any qualifiers to play, Russia have had to maintain a busy friendly schedule. And while the results don't look particularly good, they have entertained some pretty big names. Their last two games have ended in significant defeats to Brazil and France.

World Cup history: Between 1958 and 1970, the Soviet Union reached the quarter finals three times and in 1966 finished fourth. But since Russia went it alone, it's been slim pickings. They have won just two games in three Cups (1994, 2002 and 2014). Four years ago they failed to progress from one of the weaker groups, scoring just two goals in the process.

Coach: Results under Stanislav Cherchesov, who took over in August 2016 and brings a strong focus on defence, have been less than stellar. But he's blooded some young talent, who will likely make or break this campaign.

FIFA ranking: 66

Betting: 33-1

Saudi Arabia will look to Mohammad Al-Sahlawi for inspiration.
Saudi Arabia will look to Mohammad Al-Sahlawi for inspiration.

SAUDI ARABIA

Playing in their first World Cup since 2006, Saudi Arabia have made steady progress in recent times. But despite an impressive qualification campaign - where they beat Japan and forced Australia into an exhausting series of playoffs - they enter the tournament as the lowest ranked team at 70. The merry-go-round of coaches doesn't instal much confidence but they;ve showed enough in recent times to at least be competitive in Russia.

Key player: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is the man to keep an eye on. He was prolific throughout the qualifying campaign, scoring 16 times - admittedly helped by five coming against East Timor - to be a real catalyst behind the Green Falcons' run. Aussie fans might remember him as the man who equalised against the Socceroos at Adelaide Oval during a tense World Cup qualifier last year. A real threat.

Recent form: It's not bad. After a 4-0 hammering to Belgium, they have turned things around in recent days, beating Algeria 2-0 and then upstaging Greece by the same scoreline thanks to goals from Al Dawsari and Mohammed Kanoo.

World Cup history: They didn't enter the qualifying period until 1978 - and then didn't reach the prestigious tournament until the 1994 event in the USA, where they advanced to the knockout stages with wins over Morocco and, shockingly, Belgium. That started a run of four-straight World Cups, which included the disastrous 2002 affair where they failed to win a point - or even score a goal.

Coach: What a rollercoaster this has been. You think Australia's preparation has been less than ideal, changing from Ange Postecoglou to Bert van Marwijk so close to the tournament? Well, van Marwijk was only available because he'd been sacked by Saudi Arabia - despite leading them to the World Cup. And then, after just five friendlies in charge, his replacement Edgardo Bauza, was punted nine days before the draw. Juan Antonio Pizzi has since been handed the reins. He took Chile to the 2017 Confederations Cup final, but walked away from his post after failing to get them to the World Cup. Turns out he'll be there anyway.

FIFA ranking: 70

Betting: 750-1

Luis Suarez will want better memories in Russia than he produced in Brazil.
Luis Suarez will want better memories in Russia than he produced in Brazil.

URUGUAY

Uruguay's campaign was a far cry from the high-octane ones in 2001 and 2005 - where Montevideo played host to hostile ties between the home nation and Australia. No, this time around it was comparatively smooth sailing as Uruguay showed themselves to be one of the more dangerous teams to take part in the 32-team tournament. The two-time champions have a fine history in World Cups, finishing fourth as recently as South Africa in 2010.

Key player: We're not exactly going out on a limb here, but Luis Suarez is undoubtedly the star man for La Celeste. Suarez is a once-in-a-generation talent who drives the Uruguayan attack, both as a goalscorer and the creator - he's the heartbeat of the team.

Recent form: Uruguay seem to be rounding nicely into form. Suarez and Cavani - thanks to a brilliant bicycle kick - were on target in a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic. Cavani was again on target in a 1-0 win over Wales.

World Cup history: Winners at their first two attempts (1930 and 1950), they finished fourth in 1964, 1970 and again in 2010. They were disappointing four years ago in Brazil though with much the same team as they have now, receiving more attention for Suarez biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini than their style of play. They did make the round of 16 though.

Coach: Óscar Tabárez is as familiar face in the light blue of Uruguay. In his second stint in the post, the Montevideo-born 71-year-old has been in charge of Uruguay for the past 12 years - and is readying himself for a fourth, and more than likely final, World Cup campaign.

FIFA ranking: 17

Betting: 30-1

GROUP FIXTURES

Friday June 15, 1am

Russia v Saudi Arabia

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow

Friday June 15, 10pm

Egypt v Uruguay

Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg

Wednesday June 20, 4am

Russia v Egypt

Krestovsky Stadium, St Petersburg

Thursday June 21, 1am

Uruguay v Saudi Arabia

Rostov Arena, Rostov-On-Don

Tuesday June 26, midnight

Saudi Arabia v Egypt

Volgograd Arena, Volgograd

Tuesday June 26, midnight

Uruguay v Russia

Samara Arena, Samara


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WHITSUNDAYS DECIDES 2019: By George he's won it

WHITSUNDAYS DECIDES 2019: By George he's won it

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