World Cup Group A: Uruguay may not skip the Salah against Egypt
Friendly matches are behind us now. Balls have been kicked in anger. And mis-kicked. I'm looking at you, Saudi Arabia. Russia pulled off the ultimate host nation start with a 5-0 rout of the Green Falcons. Things just got real.
Now it's time to focus on Uruguay and Egypt in the other opening match in Group A and late word is that Mo Salah wants in. Coach Hector Cuper was guardedly optimistic.
I can almost 100 per cent say he will play, save for any unforeseen factors at the last minute.
This will be the second meeting between the countries, who played a friendly in 2006. Uruguay came out on top 2-0. La Celeste arrive as slight favourites. Kick-off is scheduled at 12 PM (BST) at the cozy 35,000-seat Ekaterinburg Arena, 1800 km north and east of Moscow. Here's a look at both teams.
FIFA Ranking: 45th
Argentinian tactician Hector Cuper will try to pull a major upset in the Pharaoh's 2018 FIFA World Cup debut against Uruguay. The CONMEBOL side is widely considered to be the group's top team. Although the latest word is positive, Egypt will have to wait until the very last minute on Salah's availability.
Based on previous matches, we can expect Cuper to field a 4-2-3-1 system that emphasises defensive stability. Forty-five-year-old goalkeeper Essam El Hadary will likely settle between the posts, although FIFA has ruled out his rocking chair. Names such as Ahmed Hegazy and Mohamed Elneny will play pivotal roles in trying to stop the opposing forwards and playmakers respectively. The attack features pace on the flanks. Marwan Mohsen could get the start as the lone striker upfront.
As evidenced by the fact I can't stop talking about him, Salah will impact the match by his presence or lack thereof. He might have scored five goals in the final stage of the World Cup Qualifiers, but Egypt struggled in subsequent friendlies without their talisman. Absent their star, Egypt are winless in five matches, scoring just twice over that span. If the Liverpool darling is ultimately ruled out, it's safe to say that Egypt will likely struggle once again. If not, all bets are off.
Why is the game important to Egypt? Plain and simple: confidence. Uruguay are the best team in the group and the Africans, with or without Salah, would receive a massive boost from a positive result. Russia and Saudi Arabia are teams that Egypt can defeat but who wouldn’t like to start the World Cup campaign with a positive result against a superior side?
FIFA Ranking: 14th
Have I said yet that La Celeste should boss this game and the group? Doing so likely removes Spain from the equation in the Round of 16. At the very least, Oscar Tabarez’s squad looks far superior. Will they be able to translate that into victory?
There is not a lot of mystery regarding how Uruguay play. Tabarez has been with the team since 2006. By now, everyone and their auntie know he deploys a classic 4-4-2 system with two holding midfielders, two creative wingers, and two world-class players upfront in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. We can expect more of the same, along with the occasional late tackle, blatant dive and cheeky skirting the rule book. Uruguay are ruthless.
When it comes to the key players, La Celeste have several names on which they can rely. Fernando Muslera has always been prone to commit mistakes, but the Galatasaray goalkeeper has emerged as one of the top CONMEBOL stick men in recent years. This is his chance to show how much he has grown over the past four seasons.
Of course, a goalkeeper would be nothing without a capable defence. Diego Godin, the captain and undisputed leader of the side, and Jose Maria Gimenez partner at Atletico Madrid. That understanding can only help in dealing with a player like, I don't know, Mo Salah?
Upfront, Uruguay will rely on Suarez and Cavani, each proven on the international stage. The duo combines for 199 caps and 93 goals as the all-time leading scorers for their country. Now, they must show it when it matters most.
It’s always key to start a tournament with a win. This is no different for Uruguay. Defeating Egypt would pave their way towards a potential Round of 16 berth. They must regard the Pharaohs as their primary group rival despite Russia's prolific opening display.
Prediction [before the Salah news]
Uruguay have a better, more experienced roster. The presence of Suarez and Cavani will tip the scales in their favour. Also, Egypt struggles massively without Salah. They won't create much going forward. A comfortable 2-0 victory for La Celeste.
Again, all bets are off.