Here’s Rob Reid with his fantasy world cup analysis of Groups A and B where he looks at each team individually within both Groups and their fantasy player prospects
Fantasy World Cup – Rob Reid analyses Group A and B
Odds – Uruguay 10/11 Russia 19/10 Egypt 15/2 Saudi Arabia 50/1
Group A was on paper always going to look like one of the weaker groups. With hosts Russia being ranked as a top seed, this was always going to be the group that teams in pots 2-4 were looking to be drawn in. It could present a nice opportunity for one of these teams to score a group win and cut themselves a potentially easier pathway to the quarters and even the semi-finals.
Uruguay look the most likely of the four teams to do this. They are a country who have consistently punched above their weight in international football terms, belying their small population size by embracing the footballing principles of their big name neighbours and combining the skill factor with the grit, determination and team spirit more typical of a European team. Their most recent big successes were an unexpected 4th at the 2010 World Cup and a 2011 Coppa America win. They are arguably an even more complete team now, and qualifying reflected this as they avoided their usual circuitous play-off route, finishing comfortably in 2nd place behind Brazil.
Their obvious strength is up-front. Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani are their all time leading goal-scorers and a World Class partnership that would grace any international side. Suarez would be my favoured option of the two as his increased assist potential counteracts his volatile card-magnet temper, but if funds are prohibitive Cavani isn’t a bad alternative.
Carlos Sanchez offers a budget option in midfield. Sanchez has some set-piece duties and registered 8 assists in qualifying though doesn’t present much of a goal threat.
Defensively, Uruguay registered 8/18 clean sheets in qualifying, though 6 of these did come at home. The obvious choices are the Atletico Madrid centre-back pairing of Godin and Giminez, with both also offering an aerial threat from set pieces. Galatasary keeper Fernando Muslera could be a nice option as well, especially in games where you can use substitutes throughout a Matchday, bearing in mind the Group A teams will play first.
Hosts Russia look like they have a mountain to climb coming into the tournament. They have won only twice in the last year, at home to New Zealand and South Korea, although they did manage a creditable 3-3 draw with Spain in St Petersberg in November. They are also crippled with injuries in defence with their most capped player Sergei Ignashevich coming out of retirement at the age of 38 to fill the breach. Thankfully, a kinder draw and home advantage might be the saving graces that see them through to the knockout stages.
They do boost a World Class goalkeeper in the shape of Igor Akinfeev, but whether he is a viable option in terms of Russia’s defensive worries is another story. Midfielder Alan Dzagoev has previous form in the fantasy stakes, his 3 goals in Euro 2012 racked up great differential points for some though he’s not registered an international goal since he scored against Liechtenstein in September 2015, mainly due to a couple years beset with hamstring problems. Their best options may be Fedor Smolov (top scorer in the Russian league in 2016-17) and Alexander Samedov (6 goals in 47 internationals but with significant set-piece responsibility and possibly penalties.)
Either way, the Russia squad looks like lean pickings for fantasy managers. They are probably most appealing to multiple transfers on and between matchday games where you could perhaps gamble on Akinfeev and a defender and sub them out for others who play later in the matchday if they fail to keep a clean sheet.
Egypt’s odds in this group are pretty generous as I reckon they could be dark horses for a knockout spot, especially if talisman Mo Salah wins his race to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered in the Champion’s League Final. They qualified comfortably with a game to spare through a tough group that also contained Ghana. The fixtures are probably in their favour as well, Salah is most likely to miss the Uruguay fixture but if he is fit for the Russia game in Matchday 2, I would expect his pace to torment the defensively frail hosts. A win or draw here would set them up nicely for potentially their easiest game against Saudi Arabia in Matchday 3.
Fantasy-wise, all eyes will of course be on the star of the 2017-18 FPL season Mo Salah. He’ll be in significantly less squads than we would have considered pre-UCL final, but he could be an intriguing Matchday 2 transfer in. He’ll likely be listed as a striker and has 33 goals in 57 caps. There aren’t many other inspiring options going forward and I’m not overly sold on their defence either. They did keep 3 clean sheets in qualifying and 4 clean sheets on the way to 2017 AFCON final but only the Saudi Arabia game stands out as clean sheet prospect for me.
This leads us on nicely to the underdogs in the group. Saudi Arabia scraped into an automatic qualification place on goal difference before strangely parting ways with Bert Van Marwijk, the coach that guided them there. Former Chile coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi has replaced him after he failed to lead the Chileans through qualifying and results have been somewhat mixed in the friendlies since. Solid wins against Algeria and Greece and a narrow defeat to Italy were the high points and heavy defeats to Iraq and Belgium are the lows.
They are a little bit of an unknown, with most of their squad playing at home and attempts to loan players out to La Liga in January proving uninspired. The obvious target for me would be Nawaf Al-Abed, he is their penalty taker and was their leading scorer in the 2nd phase of AFC qualifying with 5 goals. He could be a good budget enabler and again be useful in games where you substitute players in through matchdays – play him at the start and if he blanks then replace him with someone later with a later fixture.
Either way, group odds of 50/1 in the weakest section are that way for a reason in my opinion and I’d be surprised if the current crop of Saudis can offer us a repeat of Saeed Al Owairan’s amazing goal from USA 1994. You never know though!
Groups A & B are very useful in my opinion as they offer early chances of returns that can be subbed out later in the Matchday if they blank. Uruguay and Russia not meeting until Matchday 3 is handy, especially with Uruguay meeting a likely Salah-less Egypt in Matchday 1. Matchdays 1 & 2 could therefore offer a good defensive pods for these nations, especially the Uruguayans.
Group Odds – Spain 1/2 Portugal 2/1 Morocco 16/1 Iran 33/1
Group B looks initially like a great draw for the 2 European sides. 2010 winners Spain are the favourites, but neighbours and reigning European champions Portugal will fancy their chances as well. Across The Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco are back at the World Cup after a 20 year absence and were solid in qualifying as were group outsiders Iran. So although it looks like Spain and Portugal have a nice path into the last 16, their non-european counterparts are likely to prove sticky to break down and may even be able sneak a surprise result that could open a way into the knockout rounds for them.
We’ll start with the underdogs. Iran were very impressive through Asian qualifying, going unbeaten through both rounds and only conceding 2 goals in the second stage, keeping 9/10 clean sheets in the process. Ok the opposition aren’t of the calibre they’ll face in Russia, but Carlos Queiroz has his troops well organised and they will no doubt be tough opposition to beat. Recent friendlies have also been against fairly modest opposition but they did draw 1-1 with Russia in Kazan last November. This year they have 3 wins against Sierra Leone, Algeria and Uzbekistan but 2 losses to Tunisia and Turkey.
Their star player is Sardar Azmoun, who should feel at home in Russia as he plays his club football for Rubin Kazan. He has 23 goals in just 32 internationals and scored 11 times across both qualifying phases. The problem for Azmoun might be the quality of the opposition – he’s yet to register a particularly prolific season at club level in Russia and only netted 5 times in 26 appearances for Kazan last season.
The other standout option is Alireza Jahanbakhsh. He only has 4 international goals in 37 caps but was the top scorer in Eredivise last season playing for AZ Alkmaar – if he’s listed as a midfielder he could be a decent low-budget filler.
Defence-wise, their excellent record in qualifying reflects the effectiveness of the Queiroz system but for me is offset by the difference in the quality of the opposition that they will face in Russia. The Spain and Portugal matches don’t look good for clean sheets. That being said they held Argentina for nearly 90 minutes before losing out to a superb Messi goal in the 2014 World Cup and their opener against Morocco could be a good clean sheet prospect. With the advantage of being an earlier fixture in the game round, this could bring their defence into play with their goalkeeper Alizreza Beyranvand the most gametime secure.
Morocco also boast an impressive defensive record through qualifying. The Atlas Lions won a strong group that included The Ivory Coast and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon, with a record of scored 11 and conceded 0 over the 6 games. The linchpin in their defence is their captain Mehdi Bentia who plys his trade with Italian champions Juventus. He’s a class act, but is likely to be priced more highly so may not be that great an option, especially when it’s only really the opening fixture against Iran that appeals as a high clean sheet prospect.
Cheaper options would be Wolves centre-half Romain Saiss or Nabil Dirar of Fenerbahce with the latter having 3 goals in 34 caps and a solid club career with Monaco prior to his move to Turkey.
Going forward, there’s no real proven world class player which probably bodes well for the defensive prospects of the others in the group. Khalib Boutab could be the one to look at – he plays in the Turkish league, scored 4 times in qualifying and also netted in the friendly win against Serbia in March. He’s likely to play as a lone striker but may face competition from Ayoub El Kaabi. El Kaabi has been prolific domestically for RS Berkane and boasts an impressive 10 goals in 8 caps, albeit against less notable opposition.
In midfield, Hakim Ziyech looks the standout prospect. He has some set piece duties and has been prominent in the Eredivisie, initially for FC Twente before signing for Ajax for last season. He’s got 8 goals in 16 caps for his country.
Now let’s look at the big guns in the group, we’ll start with Spain. The 2010 winners coasted through qualifying, winning 9 of their 10 matches with the only points dropped being in a creditable 1-1 draw away to Italy. They scored 36 goals, conceding only 3 and looking far removed from the horrible 2014 side who were tamely eliminated at the group stage. They boast an abundance of world class talent, which is reflected in the continued European success for La Liga’s top teams. Spain are one of favourites and rightly so, they could be a good bet to go all the way.
For Fantasy assets, we’ll start in defence. David De Gea is well known to FPL managers and should be a guaranteed starter in Russia. The problem with this is that he’s likely to be one of the pricier keepers so I’d be tempted to look elsewhere for my Spanish defensive cover. Sergio Ramos has 13 international goals and is actually the 3rd highest scorer in the Spanish squad, the trade off though is that he’ll also be pricey and his abrasive style makes him a bit of a card magnet. Jordi Alba looks a good pick though, 8 goals in 60 starts and lots of assist potential as he effectively plays as an auxiliary winger sometimes, he’s likely to be cheaper than the likes of Ramos and De Gea.
In midfield, most of the talk will be around Andres Ineiesta’s international swansong, but for me it’s all about Isco. He’s been superb for Real this season and his hat-trick in the 6-1 friendly drubbing of Argentina earlier this year took his international tally to 10 goals in 27 appearances. Up front is where Spain have their issue. With David Villa long retired, no one has really stepped in to fill the void left behind.
Alvaro Morata was first choice for a while, but his woeful form in the second half of the season has seen him miss out on selection and he’s replaced by his predecessor at the Blues, Diego Costa. His international record is ok at 7 goals in 16 caps, but he’s a card magnet and faces competition from Liverpool reject Iago Aspas, who is now thriving at Celta Vigo. Coach Lopetegui may even favour a false nine which may see the role go to David Silva, who has a decent international record of 35 goals in 119 caps – he’s the highest scorer in the squad. More questions than answers here I’m afraid, so it’s a risky one to pick a Spanish striker.
This is in contrast to Portugal who have not only one of the world’s greatest players up front but happen to have him on another streak of red hot club form as well. Qualification started badly for the reigning European Champions with a 2-0 defeat in Switzerland, but that was the only low point of the campaign as they won their remaining 9 fixtures, scoring 32 and only conceding a further 2 goals in the process. This allowed them to pip the Swiss at the post on goal difference and secure automatic qualification.
Cristiano Ronaldo is of course their outstanding talent. It’s no co-incidence that he was absent for the defeat in Switzerland and he finished the season with 44 goals in 44 games for Real Madrid after a scintillating second half of the campaign. His international record is incredible – 81 goals in 149 caps and he was the second top scorer in European qualifying with 15 goals. His World Cup Record though is somewhat modest – just 3 goals in the 3 tournaments he has appeared in.
Much of this is probably because the rest of the Portugal side is considered to be solid rather than spectacular and when they come up against a higher level of opposition they have to adopt a more compact style to compete. It is often effective though and this was reflected at Euro 2016 where Portugal won the tournament despite only winning 1 of their 7 matches in 90 minutes and won the final without their talismanic forward for most of the 120 minutes.
Paramount to this compact style is their defence. Pepe is the stalwart here, but at 35 he’s not the force he once was. His partner will similarly be in the twilight of his career – either the 34 year old Jose Fonte or the 36 year old Bruno Alves; both of whom play at a less notable level of club football in China and Scotland respectively. They do still boast a world class keeper in Rui Patricio, but I worry about their defence against any sort of pace.
There’s no obvious standout fantasy prospects in midfield either. Adrien Silva and Bernardo Silva both offer potential assist threat but neither have particularly outstanding goal records for club or country. The best option for Portuguese coverage may be to ignore them for the opener against Spain and then bring cover in for the potentially easier 2nd and 3rd matchdays. Dare I say it, it may even be worth applying this tactic to star player Ronaldo.
As with Group A, the earlier fixtures are an advantage in the games where you can make changes through a matchday. Spain vs Portugal is the opener, freeing up these 2 big guns for easier matchdays 2 & 3. These 2 weeks could be the time to double up on defensive coverage for example.
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