With the 2018 World Cup draw made in Moscow last Friday, the 8 Groups for the tournament have now been determined. But who will pay whom and when, and which of the 32 teams can be expected to progress out of their groups, and into the latter stages of the tournament, which culminates with the final on 15th July next year.
Here is a guide to Groups A & B.
Group A – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay
As hosts, Russia were seeded in the draw, even though, on the basis of the FIFA World rankings, they are the lowest ranked team in the tournament. Their best performance in a World Cup was in 1966, when they came fourth, but, although they qualified for the last tournament in Brazil, they went out at the group stage without winning a single game.
Recent form is not encouraging, as they failed to qualify for the knock-out stages of this year’s Confederation Cup which they hosted. However, home advantage may give them a boost, whilst they do have a number of attractive attacking options. They may qualify from the Group but do not expect them to go beyond the last 16.
Saudi Arabia are the lowest ranked of all the teams to qualify, and will be appearing at their first World Cup since 2006. Led by Juan Antonio Pizza, who guided Chile to victory in the 2016 Copa America, they will kick-off the tournament with a match against the hosts in Moscow on 14th June.
However, it is hard to see them getting beyond the Group stage.
Egypt will be playing in their first World Cup since 1990 when they take to the pitch against Uruguay on the 15th June in Yekaterinburg.
Six-time winners of the African Cup of Nations, and beaten finalists in 2017, they progressed to Russia by using defensive football allied to the ability to attack teams quickly on the break.
Much will depend on the ability of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah to translate his club form into international football. If he can do that, then the Pharaohs may get out of the Group – but no further than that.
Uruguay are twice winners of the World Cup, and finished second in South American qualifying.
Coach Oscar Tabarez has built the current team to play attacking football, with Barcelona striker Luis Suarez their main threat. On paper they are the favourites to top the Group, although South American teams tend not to do well in Europe, so they are unlikely to reach the latter stages of the tournament.
Group B – Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Iran
Group B is probably the closest the draw came to providing a “Group of Death”, with reigning European champions Portugal drawn in the same group as former winners and neighbours Spain, with the two meeting in Sochi on 15th June.
Portugal have added creativity to the side that won in France in 2016 in the shape of Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva, and his namesake Andre Silva from AC Milan, whilst, upfront, Cristiano Ronaldo will continue to be their main source of goals. One potential area of concern is their defence, which is ageing, but they can still expect to qualify.
Spain can consider themselves unlucky not to be seeded, and go into the World Cup as one of the pre-tournament favourites. The core of the team will continue to be supplied by Real Madrid and Barcelona players, supplemented by Premier League stars like David de Gea, David Silva, and Alvaro Morata.
They are likely to top the Group and, depending on the draw, stand a good chance of reaching the quarter-final stage at least.
Morocco qualified for the World Cup without conceding a goal, and will be marking 20 years since they last appeared in the tournament. Judged by many observers to be the strongest African side to reach the finals, they are likely to base their game on solid defence and organisation. They can be considered dark horses for a surprise qualification to the knock-out stages.
Iran managed by former Manchester United coach Carlos Quieroz will be playing in their second successive World Cup. The team, which tends to use Europe-based players, is known for a deep-lying defence and quick counter attacks.
However, they are likely to struggle in the Group given the quality of the opposition, unless they can get something from their first game against Morocco in Saint Petersburg.