Egypt bank on Salah’s goals and tight defence
Pharaohs have only once lost by more than one goal under Cuper
- Coach: Hector Cuper - A stalwart of the European game with spells at Inter Milan and Valencia, the two-time Champions League finalist coach steered Egypt to the African Nations Cup final last year and their first World Cup since 1990.
- Star Players: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), Abdallah El-Said (Al Ahly)
- Best World Cup result: First round (1934, 1990)
- Performance at last World Cup: Did not qualify
Ending a 28-year wait for the World Cup was never going to come easy for Egypt.
Even now, taking an arduous route to Russia remains firmly on the agenda as the nation continues to hold its collective breath over Mohamed Salah's involvement at the Finals.
More than Liverpool's season-long dream hinged on Salah's injured shoulder barely half an hour into last month's Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid.
So, too, does the hopes and dreams of The Pharaohs' population of over 95 million.
The English Premier League's Player of the Season became his country's ultimate talisman with five goals in six games during qualifying, including a late stoppage-time penalty to seal their World Cup fate.
- June 14: Russia v S. Arabia, 11pm
- June 15: Egypt v Uruguay, 8pm
- June 20: Russia v Egypt, 2am
- June 20: Uruguay v S Arabia, 11pm
- June 25: Uruguay v Russia, 10pm
- June 25: S. Arabia v Egypt, 10pm
*All in Singapore time
By contrast, his teammates mustered a collective three goals - but there is more to this Egypt side under Hector Cuper's old school management than inevitable one-man team accusations.
Reviving the seven-time African champions from a spent force would daunt most coaches, not least a 62-year-old whose only other experience at international level saw him win just one of his 16 matches in charge of Georgia.
The Argentinian's Egyptian adventure, however, has rapidly bore fruit with a style which focuses on more defensive hallmarks.
That diligence led to Egypt conceding a respectable 23 goals in Cuper's 35 matches in charge, during which they were beaten by more than one goal only once.
Central to those statistics is the largely watertight midfield barrier of Arsenal's Mohamed Elneny and Zamalek's Tarek Hamed, who sit in front of a defence headed up by goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary - who stands to make World Cup history as its oldest player at the age of 45.
There are, however, still alarming flaws in Egypt's game plan; not least their statuesque defence's uncharacteristic trait of regularly shipping goals from aerial deliveries - despite the presence of towering centre backs like Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr.
Cuper remains under no illusions where his side stand in their Group A mission.
In what is widely considered the tournament's weakest group, they will have to battle Russia for the second place, with Uruguay the overwhelming favourites to win the group.
In order to edge out the host nation, Salah may have to again save the day for his country.
TOMORROW: GROUP B
Uruguay no longer controversial
- Coach: Oscar Tabarez
- Star players: Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain), Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid)
- Best World Cup result: Winners (1930, 1950)
- Performance at last World Cup: Round of 16
Formerly World Cup darlings, Uruguay have become its unruly house guests in recent times.
Luis Suarez is a perennial gatecrasher at Fifa's quadrennial party - his handball denied Ghana a fairy-tale semi-final appearance in 2010, and four years ago he sunk his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini.
But the Barcelona striker appears to have matured somewhat since his moment of madness.
Suarez's mellowing period could not be better-timed for Oscar Tabarez's side, who have several key players at the peak of their powers.
Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani finished the season as Ligue 1's top scorer while Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez's defensive pairing for Atletico Madrid delivered Europa League success. La Celeste are finally primed to leave something other than controversy as their calling card.
Low expectations for hosts Russia
- Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov
- Star players: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Fyodor Smolov (FC Krasnodar), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal)
- Best World Cup result: Fourth (1966)
- Performance at last World Cup: Group stage
Experimentation formed the basis of Russia's World Cup preparations.
With no qualification route to negotiate, Stanislav Cherchesov continually chopped and changed the host nation's line-up to the point that its identity for their opener against Saudi Arabia on June 14 remains largely unclear, aside from the foundation of a three-man defence.
The tournament's lowest-ranked team are also devoid of fire power, following injury to Zenit St Petersburg striker Alexander Kokorin.
Cherchesov knows the pressures of Russian expectancy, having represented his nation at the 1994 and 2002 World Cups. Perhaps it is why he has set the bar lower than joining six of the 20 previous winners who lifted the trophy as hosts.
Upheaval will hinder Saudis
- Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi
- Best players: Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr), Taisir Al-Jassim (Al-Ahli), Farhad Al-Muwallad (Al-Ittihad)
- Best World Cup result: Round of 16 (1994)
- lPerformance at last World Cup: Did not qualify
Few countries will head into the World Cup with the same level of self-inflicted upheaval as Saudi Arabia.
Group A's clear outsiders head into the Finals with Juan Antonio Pizzi becoming their third coach since last September, and crucially without a competitive fixture under his belt.
A first World Cup in 12 years for the Green Falcons comes in similarly less than ideal on-field circumstances with three players in the squad falling afoul of La Liga's ill-conceived partnership with Saudi Arabia to incorporate its players into the Spanish top flight.
Hopes will rest firmly on leading scorer Mohamed Al-Sahlawi after a 16-goal haul in qualifying, while Salem Al-Dawsari - one of those farmed out to La Liga with Villarreal - is likely to be Pizzi's leap of faith. Anything beyond a rock-bottom finish would be a quantifiable success for the Saudis.