2018 World Cup Soccer Odds and Expert Picks: Group A
The host team always faces immense pressure. For a whole lot of reasons - that we don't need to get into here because we seem to be endlessly surrounded by them - that pressure will be even more intense for the host Russians in the 2018 World Cup than for most. It's not that the Russians are viable contenders for the title - that's far from the case. The Russians have spent very heavily for this event, though, and aren't a country that embraces participation medals and feel-good stories.
The good news for them is that they certainly could have been placed in a tougher group. In fact, it's tough to imagine a much easier group they could have been put in - at least in terms of their potential to advance to the elimination rounds. Not coincidentally, Group A is far from the most interesting group in this tournament.
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Group A at a glance
Best team: Uruguay is the most talented team in the group, and it's not even close. But they aren't coming in in very good form, so it would be easy to question their motivation or readiness. They are an easy team to respect and a very hard team to love right now.
Worst team: Saudi Arabia is just a mess. They get credit for qualifying - my beloved Canadian squad hasn't even come close. But they don't have nearly enough talent, and they change managers faster than George Steinbrenner ever did. They just don't belong here.
Best game: Uruguay and Russia finish off group play against each other in a contest that should be the deciding factor for group supremacy. To say that it is the best game in the group in no way suggests that it is one of the best games of the tournament.
Predicted order of finish: Uruguay will beat Russia, but both teams will advance. Egypt should beat Saudi Arabia to pick up the scraps, but it would be in no way shocking if they didn't.
Team-by-team Breakdown (odds to win Group and tournament from BetOnline.com )
Uruguay (+2500 to win tournament, +100 to win Group A): Uruguay has won this tournament twice - though that's ancient history by now. And they should be in solid position, having really accomplished something by qualifying second out of the very tough South American region. But it's hard to get too excited about them. They got off to a hot start in qualification, but then they really went into the tank starting early in 2017. They lost all of their mojo, went on a five-game losing streak - three qualifying games and two friendlies over seven months - and then went 2-0-2 in their final four games against truly awful opponents. Then, to cap off the frustration, they played Poland to a draw and then lost to Austria, of all teams, in friendlies in November. This is a team that has had the same coach, Oscar Tabarez, since 2006, and it really feels like his voice is getting old for the players. Despite the woes, though, the team has real talent. Luis Suarez is a wildly-talented forward, captain Diego Godin is one of the world's best defenders, and Edison Cavani is a top scorer in his prime. There is absolutely no reason this team shouldn't win the group handily, but I have no faith in them at all. They are still the pick, but I certainly wouldn't bet on them - and don't trust them to replicate that surprise run to the semifinals in 2010.
Russia (+3300, +125): The Russians have not made it through group stage in their last four tries. So, are they any better now? It's hard to judge a host because they haven't had to go through the qualification process. They flopped badly at Euro 2016, finishing last in their group, but have since changed managers. But then in the FIFA Confederations Cup, played at home, they also flopped - losing two of three games and not advancing past group stage. And since then they haven't played a lot. They played Argentina tight, though, and played Spain to a draw in friendlies, so there is at least a little hope. But I'll be honest - I hate this team. With the exception of high-scoring forward Fyodor Smolov I don't love the talent, and I don't trust them under pressure at all. This group will flatter them, and they should advance, but they will lose to Uruguay in group play and will be irrelevant when games really matter.
Egypt (+15,000, +600): Egypt is making their first appearance since 1990. Manager Hector Cuper, who was very successful in Europe, gets credit for that success, but he also gets a lot of blame because this team is deadly boring to watch. The team's biggest issue is that everyone knows their tactic - Mohamed Salah, who plays at Liverpool, is their best player by such a wide margin it's ridiculous. He can score and is always dangerous. As a result, the team's best tactic is to always pass it to him. And defenders' best tactic is to always defend him aggressively. It's not a recipe for success. Obviously. They could advance. But they probably won't. Very probably won't.
Saudi Arabia (+75,000, +2500): Somehow this team made the round of 16 in 1994. It won't happen again. The best thing the team has going for them is manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, the former Spanish national. Pizzi took over Chile in 2016 and had immediate success, winning Copa America that year and then making the finals of the FIFA Confederations Cup last year. He was a hero - but not for long. Soon after the team failed to make the World Cup, and he resigned in disgrace. Now he is in Saudi Arabia, but it's been a weird ride. Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk got the team qualified, but then he quit when he couldn't get a new contract negotiated. He now manages Australia. Argentinian Edgardo Bauza took over after he had resigned from UAE after failing to qualify them, but he was fired after two months. And Pizzi took over in November. Just bizarre. And that ridiculous drama is literally the only interesting thing about this team.
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