Here is the first of the 6 Towns Radio Sports Teams Guides to World Cup 2018 that covers Group A
63rd Saudi Arabia
FIXTURES (Group Stages)
Thursday 14th June (Kick off 4pm)
Russia v Saudi Arabia
Luzhiniki Stadium, Moscow
ITV, 5 LIVE
Friday 15th June (Kick off 1pm)
Egypt v Uruguay
Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
BBC TV, 5 LIVE
Tuesday 19th June (Kick Off 7pm)
Russia v Egypt
Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
BBC TV, 5 LIVE
Wednesday 20th June (Kick off 4pm)
Uruguay v Saudi Arabia
Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
BBC TV, 5 LIVE
Monday 25th June (Kick off 1pm)
Saudi Arabia v Egypt
Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
ITV, 5 LIVE
Monday 25th June (Kick off 3pm)
Uruguay v Russia
Samara Arena, Samara
ITV, 5 LIVE
The hosts will be desperate to get off to a good start on home soil with an expectant nation watching their every move, and they have the ideal fixture to open the tournament in Saudi Arabia, arguably the weakest team in the group even though they are ranked two places above the hosts in the FIFA rankings.
As hosts, they haven’t had to qualify of course, so haven’t had too many meaningful games to test their squad, but they will be confident of qualifying for the knock-out stages, though that could prove to be a difficult task.
The biggest talking point regarding the squad selection has been the exclusion of Igor Denisov, who is arguably the best defensive midfielder, but he fell out with manager Cherchesov at Dynamo Moscow.
Russia’s are quite impressive up top. Striker Alan Dzagoev is still going strong and both Fyodor Smolov and Aleksandr Kokorin were in good goalscoring form throughout 2017 and could pose a real threat.
Stanislav Cherchesov took charge of the national team following disappointing performances at Euro 2016 and the former ‘keeper has made numerous changes, especially in defence, bringing in youngsters Viktor Vasin, Fedor Kudryashov and Georgi Dzhikiya to replace Sergei Ignashevich and Vasily Berezutski. He also plays three at the back instead of four.
An experienced manager who has been in charge of eight sides at club level before being appointed as manager of the national team made 39 appearances for his country as player and represented his country at the 1992 and 2002 World Cups and played for them during Euro 96.
Twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk from Lokomotiv Moscow and Aleksandr Golovin from CSKA could warrant special attention They are young technical midfielders who could have their breakthroughs at the World Cup.
Despite not having to qualify, there is plenty of talent within the squad, though perhaps a lack of experience at the top level could mapper the hosts should they reach the latter stages of the competition.
On the other hand, the young players brought in by the manager are likely to have nothing to fear and everything to prove.
23-man final squad:
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Brugge), Andrei Lunyov (Zenit St. Petersburg).
Defenders: Mario Fernandes (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Granat (Rubin Kazan), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Fyodor Kudryashov (Rubin Kazan), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Andrei Semyonov (Akhmat Grozny), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St. Petersburg).
Midfielders: Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal), Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow), Yuri Gazinsky (FC Krasnodar), Alexander Golovin (CSKA Moscow), Daler Kuzyaev (Zenit St. Petersburg), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Alexander Samedov (Spartak Moscow), Alexander Yerokhin (Zenit St. Petersburg), Yuri Zhirkov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Roman Zobnin (Spartak Moscow).
Forwards: Artyom Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula), Alexei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Fyodor Smolov (FC Krasnodar).
Saudi Arabia are no strangers to the World Cup Finals, but have missed out since their last appearance in 2006, failing to qualify in both 2006 and 2010, and they were desperate to make sure they qualified for Russia.
They almost missed out for the third time in a row, but the Green Falcons made it on the last day of the qualifiers thanks to a win over already-qualified Japan – even then they only just scraped through – a superior goal difference favoured them over Australia.
Qualification was followed by chaos, as manager Van Marwijk was replaced by Edgardo Bauza, and then then Bauza himself left. Former Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has taken up the head coaching role and he will be hoping to prove himself over the summer.
The recent coaching merry-go-round following qualification for the World Cup Finals was surprising to say the least. Van Marwijk had been in place for two years and was building a solid team, but he left just days after his side’s place in Russia was confirmed.
His place was taken by Bauza, who had taken over the United Arab Emirates just weeks previously.
A month later, the Argentinian was on his way out. Juan Antonio Pizzi, who lead Chile to the Copa America Centenario in 2016, has come in to fill the void.
Prolific marksman Mohammed Al-Sahlawi played a massive part in qualification, banging in 16 goals, and if Saudi Arabia are to do anything in this World up then the 31-year-old will need to show that kind of form.
Another one to watch could be Fahad Al-Muwallad, who, when approached by a scout from Barcelona as a young child, spurned the opportunity to join the Catalan giants.
At just 6 years old, he instead signed for Al-Ittihad, where he went on to make 117 appearances, scoring 17 goals. At just 5ft 5ins tall, he is blessed with blistering pace with extremely quick feet and he is capable of causing any team problems.
The now 23-year-old made the move to Levante on loan as part of a plan to give him more experience and to also aid his development.
23-man final squad
Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al Owais (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Mosailem (Al Ahli), Abdullah Al Mayouf (Al Hilal)
Defenders: Mansoor Al Harbi (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Shahrani (Al Hilal) Mohammed Al Breik (Al Hilal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al Ahli), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Hawsawi (Al Nassr), Ali Al Bulaihi (Al Hilal)
Midfielders: Abdullah Al Khaibari (Al Shabab), Abdulmalek Al Khaibri (Al Hilal), Abdullah Otayf (Al Hilal), Taiseer Al Jassim (Al Ahli), Houssain Al Mogahwi (Al Ahli), Salman Al Faraj, Mohamed Kanno (both Al Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al Shabab), Salem Al Dawsari (Al Hilal), Yahya Al Shehri (Al Nassr), Fahad Al Muwallad (Al Ittihad)
Forwards: Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Assiri (Al Ahli)
Despite dominating the African game, they have failed to turn that dominance into – until a late, late penalty booked their place for the tournament in Russia.
It is the first time they have qualified since 1990 after coming close on several occasions and after finishing level with Algeria in the 2010 qualifiers they agonisingly lost out in a play-off game.
With Mo Salah in their midst they certainly have the fire power to cause problems in Russia, but are they strong enough all round to really make their mark?
One former player from Stoke City and a former Port Vale midfielder will certainly be hoping so. Stoke fans will no doubt be keeping an eye on Ramadan Sobhi in the tournament and Vale fans will have eyes on Wigan Athletic’s Sam Morsy.
Appointed in March 2015 on a three-year contract, the 61-year-old Argentinian has big game experience at club level and will not be phased by events surrounding him at the finals.
He was in charge of Mallorca, taking them to to the European Cup-Winners Cup Final and reached two successive Champions League Finals with Valencia.
Obviously the most talked about player during the 2017-2018 season, in England at least, was striker Mohamed Salah, who has made a huge impression in his first season in the Premier League with Liverpool.
Judging by his club form, he can make a huge difference to Egypt’s chances of progresses from their group and into the knockout stage of the competition. He’ll obviously need to recover from his injury in the Champions League Final, but could make a real difference if he plays.
But a quick word about goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, who will be 45 years old in January. Named in the final 23 man squad, if he plays he could become the oldest player ever at the World Cup.
23-man final squad:
Goalkeepers: Sherif Ekramy (Al Ahly), Essam El Hadary (Al Taawoun), Mohamed El Shennawy (Al Ahly)
Defenders: Mohamed Abdel-Shafi (Al Fateh), Ayman Ashraf (Al Ahly), Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa), Ahmed Fathi (Al Ahly), Omar Gaber (Los Angeles FC), Ali Gabr (Zamalek), Mahmoud Hamdy (Zamalek), Ahmed Hegazi (West Bromwich Albion), Saad Samir (Al Ahly)
Midfielders: Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), Abdallah El Said (Al Ahly Jeddah), Tarek Hamed (Zamalek), Mahmoud Kahraba (Al Ittihad Jeddah), Sam Morsy (Wigan Athletic), Shikabala (Al Raed), Ramadan Sobhi (Huddersfield Town), Mahmoud Hassan (Kasimpasa), Amr Warda (Atromitos)
Forwards: Marwan Mohsen (Al Ahly), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
During qualification Uruguay started off like they really meant business, despite being without the services of both Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but then fell away, losing three games in the middle of a run of six games with just one victory.
Worryingly, they had been in front in each of the three games, before falling to defeat. They changed things around in the middle of the park, gained momentum, then managed to qualify for the World Cup in relative comfort.
A few days after a goalless draw with Argentina, in which Uruguay hardly crossed the halfway line, a 2-1 win away to Paraguay effectively sealed qualification.
Remarkably in this day and age, Óscar Tabárez has been in the driving seat behind the national side since 2006. Under his guidance Uruguay won the Copa America title in 2011 after beating Paraguay in the finals.
Tabarez is among the most experienced coaches in Russia for the World Cup and he is the only coach in the history of Uruguay football who has qualified for three consecutive World Cups (2010, 2014, and 2018).
Madrid defender Diego Godín will skipper the team and Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani form a key partnership up front and we can expect the duo to start in old fashion 4-4-2 formation.
A flat four midfield of Rodriguez, Vecino, Bentacur and Ramirez is expected to provide the much needed shield for the back four and have control in the midfield.
Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera, Martin Silva, Martin Campana.
Defenders: Diego Godin, Sebastian Coates, Jose Maria Gimenez, Maximiliano Pereira, Gaston Silva, Martin Caceres, Guillermo Varela.
Midfielders: Nahitan Nandez, Lucas Torreira, Matias Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur, Carlos Sanchez, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Cristian Rodriguez, Gaston Ramirez.
Strikers: Cristhian Stuani, Maximiliano Gomez, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez.