PATRICK MULLINS SOCCER BLOG: GETTING THROUGH THE HOST NATION'S GROUP AT THE WORLD CUP

The ping pong balls spun around as the world watched. As is the case every four years, the world holds its breath for the World Cup draw. We wait for the match ups in Russia 2018’s chapter of history. Pinging off each other. Around the balls go.

The first group is finally announced. We know the first game is Russia vs Saudi Arabia. The hosts also find out their remaining group opponents will be Egypt and Uruguay. The host country’s excitement is now at a climax, as they now know their path to advancing in the tournament.

Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov has commented he hopes to reach the semifinals. The expectations from the coach as well as the rest of the country are high, but following a poor performance at the Confederations Cup last summer, they have a lot to prove. They will look to rely on the spark from a raucous home nation to thrust them into their best performance yet.

The host’s group is one of the most unpredictable in the tournament. All four teams will all feel the same way going into the tournament: “we can advance out of this group”. But, Russia and the other three teams have big questions to answer if they want to advance.

Saudi Arabia qualified for the World Cup amidst coaching drama. They have had three managers during the last year. Now under current coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, the players have been provided new opportunities. The Saudi soccer federation got many of its players on teams in the Spanish top league LaLiga. This will only help a team that has had consistent qualifying success by making the last four world cups, including a Round of 16 appearance. Pizzi will be tasked with continuing and adding on to that success this summer.

One player in this group will look to add on to one of the most successful individual years in English Premier League history. Mo Salah will look to continue that form on the international stage. In a year where he has put together dazzling performances at Liverpool, he will be a marked man this summer, so the question is if he can produce with that pressure. He also is rushing back to recover from an injury he got in his last match with Liverpool.

Other than Salah, the rest of the squad brings playing experience in England, Scandinavia and even the United States. Amor Tarek and Omar Gaber play for Orlando City and LAFC respectively in the MLS. These two along with the rest of the team will look to Salah to lead their team to a successful World Cup campaign.

If there would be a so-called favorite to win this group, it would be Uruguay. They have the most talent and success in the competition. With players like Edison Cavani (Paris St. Germain in France) and Diego Godin (Athletico Madrid in Spain), the team has players plying their trade in some of the top leagues in the world, and not to mention, the system implemented in Uruguay, called the “proceso de institucionalizacion de seleciones y la formacion de sus futbolistas”, has produced good talent within the home country.

The man who started the program is their current national team manager Oscar Tabarez. He has brought structure and pride that has allowed Uruguay to perform well in recent international tournaments.

They have won two world cups, and although they were in 1930 and 1950, they remain a top soccer nation, which is amazing considering the country is only made up of 3.4 million people. The small country has some history on its side, but the piece of history about South American teams never having won a World Cup in Europe is very much not. Tabarez and his beloved Uruguay will face the challenge of changing that history, and it will begin by navigating this uncertain cluster of teams in Group A.

Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay. The ping pong balls have been settled what feels like long ago, and the stage is very close to being set for the start of the 2018 World Cup. Expectedly from years past full of excitement and entertaining matches, the tournament promises to be just that with many exciting teams and even a few who expect to lift the trophy in July. But every World Cup starts with the hosts and group A.

With many headlines to be made, the tournament starts with Group A, and this time around each team will be feeling optimistic but facing a pile up of teams that all have questions to answer if they want to advance.