Uruguay scored in the 89th minute to beat Egypt 1-0 in Ekaterinburg on Friday in their Group A opener.
La Celeste left it late but Jose Gimenez’s header in stoppage time broke Egypt’s hearts after a solid display from the Pharaohs without their superstar Mohamed Salah who was only fit enough to sit on the bench.
Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez missed a host of chances for Uruguay but their 2018 World Cup campaign is off and running with a win as they sit second in Group A behind hosts Russia.
Next up for Uruguay is a clash with Saudi Arabia on June 20 in Rostov-on-Don, while Egypt play hosts Russia in Saint Petersburg on June 19.
The game came to life in the latter stages as Egypt’s captain Ahmed Fathy drilled a shot from distance on goal which Fernando Muslera saved well. Then at the other end Cavani played in Suarez but as he rounded the goalkeeper Egypt’s El-Shenawy grabbed the ball.
Mohamed Elneny chipped over as the game opened up and Suarez then nodded the ball down to Cavani but his thunderous volley was palmed away by El-Shenawy.
Cavani then hit the post from a free kick as Egypt were desperately hanging on but eventually they cracked as a free kick from the right was headed home powerfully by Gimenez to secure the win for Uruguay in dramatic fashion.
So what are we looking for? What are the storylines that will shape how we view the play on the field? There will surely be plenty to come that we cannot prepare for, but there’s also plenty to think about entering the tournament’s opening match. Here’s a quick rundown of what people are talking about.
Struggling countries changing coaches with the World Cup in the horizon has plenty of prior precedence. World powers changing managers with the World Cup staring them in the face does not.
Spain sacked Julen Lopetegui just a day before the opening match of the tournament after it leaked before planned that he would take over the Real Madrid job after the month-long event. Lopetegui angered the Spanish heirarchy by not consulting them before talks with Madrid, so he got the boot. Will Spain rally around the adversity, or will they crumble under the distraction? All eyes will be on the 2010 World Cup winners as they progress through the tournament…or don’t.
The electric Liverpool star was cruelly injured by Spanish defender Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final, leaving many with fears that he could miss the tournament and leave Egypt toothless. Thankfully for all neutral fans, it appears Salah’s shoulder will not keep him off the field much, if at all.
So how far can he take Egypt? The African nation appears dangerous with him on the field, but it will be difficult for the country to support their superstar and keep teams from keying on him. Group A does remain wide open, and Egypt will have a good chance of making the knockout round, leaving fans with plenty of chances to catch Salah on the field.
3) Can Lionel Messi plug the gaping hole in his resume?
The Argentinian megastar is widely thought of as one of the best players to ever take the field – if not *the* best, depending on who you ask. However, by the simple fact that he is Argentinian, he will forever be compared to Diego Maradona, and his lack of major trophies on the national stage is a glaring weakness in his otherwise glittering CV.
Argentina is an annual powerhouse, but based on their weak qualifying performance, they are not one of the top favorites to win this tournament. Can Messi will his side to a World Cup win and ward away the haters with (his second) potential retirement on the horizon? Nobody has more to lose in this tournament than the Barcelona legend.
History is against the 2014 World Cup winners coming into Russia – nobody has repeated as World Cup champions since Brazil in 1962. Nonetheless, Joachim Low’s squad is unquestionably the deepest in the world on paper, and that has them as the clear favorite alongside the Brazilians.
Josh Kimmich has blossomed as one of the world’s most valuable and versatile players, Thomas Muller loves him a World Cup, and Manuel Neuer is healthy and ready to lead the defending champions.
5) Will France, Belgium, and Poland get over the hump?
There are a host of European teams that have glittering rosters on paper, yet have failed to live up to the expectations of the “Golden Generation” of talent. No team is a better example of that than Belgium. The Red Devils have only made it past a World Cup quarterfinal once in history, and 2014’s near-defeat to the United States followed by their quarterfinal loss to Argentina saw Belgium’s disappointment become a reality. In Euro 2016 the story was the same, with a quarterfinal defeat to Gareth Bale‘s Welsh bunch leaving supporters wanting more.
France is no different. The 1998 World Cup winners have struggled to rediscover that success, and while a loss to eventual champions Germany is nothing to slouch at, their 2014 quarterfinal exit was still disappointing in name. In Euro 2016, they came oh so close to a trophy, but losing in the final to Portugal left them with a bad taste in their mouth on home soil. Didier Deschamps has a roster busting with insane amounts of talent, but their recent warm-up friendlies have unearthed more questions than answers.
Finally, Poland is a team that many have tabbed as overrated by the FIFA rankings. Listed as the 8th-best team on the planet according to the world governing body, Poland has yet to do anything of note with its lofty ranking. The squeaked by Switzerland in the opening round of the Euro 2016 knockout round before falling to Portugal, and thry weren’t even present in Brazil in 2014. Robert Lewandowski is a household name but has done just as much losing as winning in big games for both club and country.
Bonus: Include Switzerland in this group as well if you’d like. Ranked 6th by the FIFA metrics, are they truly all that dangerous?
England has been the butt of plenty of jokes over the last decade or two, known more for finding new and creative ways to lose before they should. This year looks to be the year that changes.
The Three Lions are well-coached under Gareth Southgate, and their pramatism is balanced out by a truly dangerous attacking intent. Harry Kane is one of the world’s most dangerous strikers, but the entire team still needs to prove it belongs among the upper echelon of world powers. They’ll likely get that chance barring massive disappointment, with a knockout stage match against either Germany or Brazil likely on the cards. Can the Three Lions take its talent on paper and translate it to the field?
Brazil is one of the tournament favorites, there is no denying that. And yet, it still feels like a dark cloud looms over the Selecao. All one needs to do is mention the numbers “7-1” and it immediately harkens back to one of the deepest pits of despair in Brazilian soccer history.
Their brutal pounding at the hands of Germany on home soil remains an open wound for Brazil, and they would love nothing more than to take care of those demons in the very next World Cup. Should both teams win their groups, Germany and Brazil would end up on opposite sides of the bracket, leaving fans salivating at a possible revenge match in the World Cup final.
Fekir brings a silky skill set and a very good 85 percent pass completion rate given he plays in an advanced part of the pitch and takes a lot of audacious chances will the ball. Eighteen league goals and eight assists are no jokes, either.
He was, however, deployed in a manner inconsistent with how Jurgen Klopp uses his midfielders in a 4-3-3. Fekir played a lot in the 4-2-3-1, a formation Klopp stopped using after the sale of Philippe Coutinho.
In fact, when Lyon boss Bruno Génésio opted for a 4-3-3, it was usually because Fekir was injured or unavailable. Génésio used Fekir once as a right wing in the 4-3-3, and twice as a right central midfielder in an inverted triangle. One time, they beat PSG. Conversely, they also lost to Bordeaux.
Klopp could easily opt to go back to a 4-2-3-1, especially with more safety in defensive midfield thanks to the arrivals of Fabinho and Naby Keita (It’s also worth noting that the trio combined for 23 yellow cards and two red cards last season, so Liverpool could set some sort of record there).
Liverpool used a 4-3-3 in all four of their meetings with Man City last season, the only loss coming when the Reds had 10 men. City used a 4-3-3 twice against Liverpool, a 3-1-4-2 in the 5-0 win, an a 3-5-2 when chasing the second leg of the UEFA Champions League tie.
The Reds had so much success in the 4-3-3 late last season, and especially against City, even if the formation was demanded largely due to injury. Klopp will probably use both, but perhaps it’s best to expect a lot more 4-2-3-1.
And it would probably look like this:
— Karius —
— Alexander-Arnold — Matip — Van Dijk — Robertson —
— Fabinho — Keita —
— Salah — Fekir — Mane —
— Firmino —
That is a very good lineup, and it’s unreasonable to think any of the players take a dramatic step back next season.
But going to a 4-3-3 with Fekir in the center of the park is not a formation I’d hazard against Man City. And using Fekir on the wing means benching Sadio Mane (likely to use Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita on top of Fabinho).
As good as Man City was last season, it’s difficult to believe they are going to find another 100-point season. Bounces alone should knock them down to 95. Can the Reds be 15-20 points better?
It’s possible, sure, but don’t forget that City is going to be improved by familiarity with the system alone (not to mention additions like (probably) Riyad Mahrez).
Is it August yet? Oh yeah, we’ve got a World Cup first.
For the United States, it’s the next baby steps forward in the long, slow rebuild from this Fall’s World Cup qualifying failure, and the first game since Earnie Stewart was hired as USMNT general manager. It’s also the first meeting with France since 2011.
For France, it’s a send-off to Russia, the final match before a tournament many expect could end with Didier Deschamps’ men lifting the World Cup Trophy.
The French have looked quite good in their run-up to Russia, beating Ireland 2-0 and Italy 3-1 heading into Saturday.
Five different goal scorers have accounted for France’s markers, though Nabil Fekir may not play a prominent role in the match if he’s zipping off to Liverpool on Friday.
France’s XI is star-studded. Even the casual soccer fan has probably heard of more than half the lineup: Pogba, Kante, Griezmann, Mbappe, Lloris, Dembele.
On paper, turf, and maybe water, the young United States team will be expected to be lambs to the slaughter in Lyon. Only five players have double-digit caps. Thirteen have three or fewer.
It’s another chance for Dave Sarachan’s men to put themselves in the shop window. Managers from all over the world have their eyes on France, and will be focused on so many young players in Deschamps’ squad like Thomas Lemar, Mbappe, and Benjamin Pavard.
Despite his own goal and a still bewildered disappointment in his voice, the Liga MX center back says he’ll be watching and cheering for fellow CONCACAF nations when the tournament starts next week in Russia.
“I am Mexican, I’ve lived there now for three years and I have friends on the team, some of my teammates are on the team,” said Gonzalez, who was born in Texas to Mexican parents.
“I have a friend who plays for Costa Rica, so I’m definitely not bitter. I’ll be cheering them on and I hope they represent CONCACAF well. I’m looking forward to seeing Mexico hopefully get past the group stage and see how far they can go. My teammate Erick Gutierrez and my former teammate Chucky Lozano, I’m really pulling for them and I hope they have a good tournament.”
Gonzalez was speaking to ProSoccerTalk on behalf of Clamato and their promotion of a michelada, a drink made when the tomato and clam juice drink is mixed with beer and spices (Gonzalez suggests hot sauce).
Like many of his veteran USMNT teammates, Gonzalez has not been called into national team camp since that fateful night at Ato Boldon Stadium. That evening saw him produce an own goal and the United States end a seven tournament run as World Cup participants.
Gonzalez is hoping things calm down a bit around the team.
“I think that we’re in good hands,” he said of the Stewart hire. “Everyone knows that change was needed. Change has happened, and now it’s about moving forward.”
As for his hopes of returning to the team — 29 is not old for a center back — Gonzalez looks forward to a chance for redemption, but is not expecting anything. What he would like to see is a little more organization, hunger, and commitment from the men who are called into the team.
“I just like for things to be running smoothly and when guys go into camps, they are there for the team, to wear their jersey with pride and get along with everyone. It doesn’t happen all the time, but knowing what’s happened with not qualifying and all the things that went wrong, it’s in everyone’s best interest to put everything behind themselves. When they do get together, it has to be all about the team and how they can come together to get the results they need to get.
“I’m liking the changes that are happening with the GM, and looking forward to a new coach, and seeing the direction they takes. I’m happy they are giving these young guys opportunity. I’m think they are moving in the right direction and I’m interested in seeing how it all comes to fruition, and I hope to still be a part of the group and do what I can to help the program and help the young guys if that’s what I have to do, just whatever it takes.”
Is he hopeful of a return to national team duty? Yes, but he’s not necessarily expecting it.
“I’m at the point where I’m just hoping it does come at some point, but if it doesn’t, I’m totally fine with that. I have to focus on my club play and get better every day. If I do happen to get a call-up, I’ll be super excited and ready to go in and join the team. Until it happens, it’s not going through my mind.”
It so happened that our conversation took place hours after a reported agreement to send Gonzalez from Pachuca to Atlas. Gonzalez says “nothing’s done yet” regarding the proposed transfer.
“It’s been all over the Internet, but either I’m going or I’m staying at Pachuca. Nothing is official.”
A product of Maryland, Gonzalez was the third overall pick of the LA Galaxy in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. He was Rookie of the Year, won three MLS Cups and two Supporters Shields, and was in the league’s Best XI in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014.
He transferred to Pachuca in 2016, winning the Clausura in his first season and then the CONCACAF Champions League in 2017.
The split season is the biggest difference between MLS and Liga MX, Gonzalez says, adding that the desperation is consistent.
“Both leagues are very competitive but the biggest difference for me is that every game is really tough,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes in MLS, the season is long and there are some games, you hate to say, but that don’t really matter. You hit that period in May and April and the games just aren’t that interesting. For Liga MX, there are two short seasons, two playoffs, you only have 17 games, and there’s that stress that goes along with losing a couple of games and feeling the pressure from everywhere. Every game matters, and every game is a big game.”
Would he like to see that in MLS?
“It could be fun to have that implemented but it’s difficult because how big the U.S. is and the differences in how cold it can get and how hot it can get.”
As for the World Cup, Gonzalez thinks the winner won’t be coming from UEFA for the first time in more than a decade.
“I’ve been saying I want Brazil to win it. I feel really bad the way it ended in Brazil in 2014. They have a great team, and I think they can make a final and maybe finish this one off.”