Russia will kick off the 2018 World Cup on Thursday, when the hosts take on Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the tournament.
The game should serve as a celebration for the Russians, who will be heavily favored over what may be the weakest team in the World Cup field. But anything less than a win would be a disaster for Russia, as the host country will face two much tougher tests in their remaining Group A matches.
Group A: Suarez Seeks Redemption
Without a doubt, the team to beat in the group is Uruguay. The two-time World Cup champions – who last won the tournament in 1950 – may not be widely pegged as a contender for the title this year, but they remain a dangerous side for any opponent, and William Hill has installed them as the 10/11 favorites to top Group A.
Uruguay is hoping for a better end to their tournament than they saw in 2014, when they lost to Colombia in the round of 16. That will require a more restrained effort from striker Luiz Suarez, who was ejected from the tournament last time around after biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini.
“It was my mistake,” Suarez told the Associated Press. “So I have a debt to repay to myself and Uruguay, to try to show a good image.”
Russia (6/4) has been installed as the likely second team to advance out of the group, in large part due to their home field advantage. But they’ll need to watch out for Egypt (5/1), a team that may lack depth but features one of the world’s greatest scorers in Mohamed Salah. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, Salah is considered doubtful to play against Uruguay on Friday, as he is still recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered during the Champions League final.
Group B: Spain Collides with Portugal
Group B will see two European neighbors face each other in what one of the marquee matches of the group stage. Spain and Portugal will meet each other on Friday in a game that will likely determine the group winner, and while both teams are favored to advance to the knockout stages regardless of what happens in their match, it’s still a clash that both sides want to win.
“We can beat Spain,” Portugal midfielder Manuel Fernandes said during a press conference near Moscow. “Our goal is to win all matches in the group stage and advance to the next round.”
Spain, the 4/9 favorite to win Group B, remains one of the top picks to win the World Cup this year, sitting behind only Brazil and Germany according to oddsmakers. But their team is aging, with many of the stars of the 2010 World Cup likely making their final international appearances for the country this summer.
Meanwhile, Portugal (2/1) are the defending European champions and sit fourth in FIFA’s world rankings. While they’re not among the favorites to win the World Cup – William Hill gives them 25/1 odds of becoming world champions – they have a wealth of talent on their side, including one of the two best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo.
“We know we aren’t favorites, but in football nothing is impossible,” Ronaldo told reporters. “All the players will do their best, with the humility we had in 2016 – when we were not favorites and we won.”
It will take a major slip from either Spain or Portugal to fail to advance out of Group B. Both Morocco (16/1) and Iran (25/1) will be looking for opportunities to capitalize on, but neither is regarded as a serious threat to the top two in the group. For Morocco, the bigger battle may be happening off the field, where the country hopes to upset the joint North American bid for the right to host the 2026 World Cup.