By STEVEN GOFF | firstname.lastname@example.org | The Washington Post
Predicted order of finish: Uruguay, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia
Russia is not the favorite in this foursome, but as the home team, all eyes will turn its way. The host country, after all, carries the weight of a riveted populace and, except for South Africa’s predictable frailties in 2010, 19 welcoming parties over 84 years dodged the perils of group play.
It’s the least they should accomplish. In many nations, though, expectations demand a ride to the semifinals and beyond.
So where do Russia’s hopes and dreams lie? Or, given its dearth of success in major competitions since the Soviet Union collapsed, where do they die?
Despite gaining a favorable draw, the Russians are not a sure bet of advancing to the next stage. They are No. 66 in the FIFA rankings, behind, among others, Albania, Bolivia and Cape Verde Islands. Only Saudi Arabia (tied for 67th) is worse — and the Saudis just so happened to land in Russia’s group. (Go figure.)
Several Russian regulars are sidelined with injuries and only one is a full-time starter in a major league outside Russia. Victory over the Saudis in the opener would boost morale, but the team would still need between one and three points against Uruguay and Egypt.
Which brings us to the favorite, Uruguay, which finished second to Brazil in South America’s rugged qualifying competition. There aren’t many scoring tandems in the world with the ruthlessness of Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain) and Luis Suarez (Barcelona). They arrived at training camp after posting a combined 71 goals in 99 matches across all competitions for their trophy-winning clubs this past season. Their joint international portfolio is approaching 100 career goals.
Egypt’s hopes rest with Mohamed Salah, the inspirational and clinical attacker for Liverpool (44 goals in all competitions). If Salah regains full strength after suffering a shoulder injury in the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid, the Pharaohs could very much revel in their first appearance since 1990.
Saudi Arabia’s high point came in the 1994 World Cup with a stunner against Belgium and a place in the round of 16. Since then, the Saudis have either failed to qualify or been among the tournament’s worst teams. Most of the squad arrives from two top clubs in the domestic league, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli, plus three players from the Spanish circuit.