Simon Mail previews Group A of World Cup 2018 and thinks the hosts Russia could face a challenge to qualify for the knockout stages...
"Uruguay are clear favourites to top the group and the South Americans should be confidently backed to achieve this after being given a favourable draw. Uruguay have never failed to get out of the group stages under coach Oscar Tabarez and should have too much quality and nous for their rivals."
World Cup 2018 Group A
Hosts Russia under pressure to perform
Russia will have the backing of the home fans at this year's World Cup but there is no guarantee the hosts will make it through to the knockout stages. Their recent history in the competition does not bode well, with the team failing to get out of their group in all three appearances since 1994 including most recently four years ago.
This latest Russia team has hardly been convincing either during the extended build-up to the tournament. Stanislav Cherchesov's side were knocked out of the Confederations Cup early last summer which did little to enhance confidence in their chances, while their latest unimpressive showing came in a 1-0 friendly defeat to Austria where they failed to muster a shot on target. Striker Fyodor Smolov and playmaker Aleksei Miranchuk are key to their chances of progression but even in a relatively weak group, Russia are far from nailed on to reach the second round.
Uruguay look the team to beat
Uruguay have great pedigree in the World Cup and the two-time winners look to have a very generous route to the second round. The South Americans are again led by the experienced coach Oscar Tabarez and he guided them to fourth place in 2010. Uruguay will hope to go further than four years ago when they were beaten by Colombia in the last 16.
This team are blessed with several world class players and have so much experience at the highest level with a potent front line of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, as well as outstanding defender Diego Godin. After qualifying comfortably in second, ahead of Argentina, Uruguay will be viewed as potential contenders at [32.0] to challenge the favourites for the competition.
Egypt could be dangerous opponents
Egypt are appearing in only their third World Cup and their first since 1990 but the Pharaohs should not be discounted to qualify at the expense of the hosts. Much will undoubtedly rest on the fitness of Mohamed Salah after he was forced off in Liverpool's Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid with a shoulder injury. Salah, who scored 44 goals for his club this season, is still expected to play some part in Russia and his availability will be critical to their chances.
Former Inter Milan and Valencia coach Hector Cuper has been in charge since 2015 and has helped build a team with a particular focus on defensive solidity. Last year's Africa Cup of Nations finalists will certainly not be easy opponents and are likely to be locked in a battle with Russia to progress alongside Uruguay. Despite the odds favouring the hosts, Egypt (46th) are actually ranked 20 places higher than them in the world rankings.
Saudi Arabia unlikely to progress
Saudi Arabia are one of the rank outsiders for the tournament and it looks a huge challenge for the side simply to make it through to the second round. Their best achievement came when reaching the last 16 in 1994 after beating Belgium but coach Juan Antonio Pizzi will have to produce something special to finish in the top two this year with an early exit on the cards.
Uruguay are clear favourites to top the group and the South Americans should be confidently backed to achieve this after being given a favourable draw. Uruguay have never failed to get out of the group stages under Tabarez and should have too much quality and nous for their rivals. It looks like a battle between Russia and Egypt to join them in the knockout stages. If Salah is fit to play, the outsiders look generously priced to upset the hosts and qualify for the second round.
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Simon Mail's 2017/18 P/L