Many of you might not have heard about Ekpe Udoh…
As the World counts down to the 21st FIFA World Cup in Russia, we begin ours with a look at the individual teams in each group to assess what each team is bringing to the party…
By Tijjani Abdulsalam
Group A (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay)
Had it not been for the fact that they are the hosts, Russia will most likely not have qualified for this tournament judging from their form over the past two years or so. The hosts have only won 2 of 10 friendly matches since March 2017 against (with all due respect) teams like Hungary and South Korea and it is hard to imagine their fortunes simply turning around when the Mundial kicks off.
Pharaohs can be a formidable opponent for anyone on their day, even against the best of teams. Besides having some very decent, but not so popular players, the ‘Salah-factor’ may just make the difference when the going gets tough. Having qualified for the first time since 1990 and only for the third time overall, Salah and Co. will be propelled by the dreams and aspirations of millions back home to survive the group and go as far as possible. Never have a pharaoh’s generation been so defined by the brilliance of one player. How much more is there to this team besides the exceptional talents of Mo Salah remains to be seen, and that could factor, should the Liverpool man for some reason be unavailable. Should he be available however, the rest of Group A should expect a raw deal for Salah propels this team in a way only a Lionel Messi or C. Ronaldo can.
Saudi Arabia is easily remembered for the 8-0 drubbing it received in the hands of Germany in 2002 but if you have been in football for a while, you would know that it has not been all doom and gloom for the Greens. Back in 1994, on their debut, the Saudis shocked even themselves by emerging from a group that included Netherlands, Belgium and Morocco before succumbing to 1-3 to Sweden in round 16. The Saudis would need similar level of inspiration and tactical awareness to scale through this group and they can count on those from Head Coach Antonio Pizzi, a Copa America Winner with Chile. A quality bench however has its own limits without quality players.
On paper, one may be tempted to rename this group ‘Uruguay and any other’. And why not? La Celeste are over and above the pack in terms of history, pedigree, stability and man-for-man quality. Coach Tabarez (one of two longest serving managers heading to Russia) has been able to transform a group of individually brilliant players into a cohesive team capable of taking on anyone, on their day. With two of the world’s best strikers-Suarez and Cavani - upfront, Russian, Egyptian and Saudi defenders are guaranteed a handful.
One should ordinarily expect Uruguay to scale through with little scratches, if any. The Arabian brothers – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – should battle for the second slot.