Russia

Road to Russia: Automatically qualified as the hosts. They won after two rounds in the 2018 FIFA bidding process, beating Portugal/Spain in second, Belgium/Netherlands in third and the eliminated England.

Coach: Stanislav Cherchesov was a former USSR and Russia goalkeeper and is now managing the nation he was capped for. He was appointed as head coach in 2016 and was involved in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.

Key Players: Igor Akinfeev has 106 caps for Russia and brings a wealth of experience between the sticks. The goalkeeper is captain for the national team and his club CSKA Moscow where he’s spent his entire career.

Fyodor Smolov has 12 goals from 32 appearances for Russia and is coming off a stellar season in the Russian Premier League for his club Krasnodar. The striker’s 14 goals were only bettered by Quincy Promes’ 15.

Verdict: Being the hosts they’ll have a clear advantage with familiarisation of the stadiums and surroundings, whether they take that in their stride remains to be seen. They’ll be desperate to at least make it out of the group in second place as the home nation and would be disappointed if that’s not the case.

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Saudi Arabia

Road to Russia: After cruising past the second round of qualifying, Saudi Arabia famously pinched second place ahead of Australia in Group B of round three qualification to book their place to Russia.

It came down to a measly two goals that separated the two sides and ensured the Saudi’s would make it to the World Cup for the first time since 2006.

Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi was unable to lead Chile to the World Cup in Russia and consequently left that role. The Argentinian-born coach wanted a fresh start and was snapped up by Saudi Arabia to help them in their World Cup campaign. The man who represented Spain at international level has turned disappointment into a new opportunity.

Key Players: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi’s 16 goals in Asian Football Confederation qualifying made him joint-highest goalscorer with Ahmed Khalil from the United Arab Emirates. Al-Sahlawi is known as a speedy striker who is deadly in front of goal.

Taisir Al-Jassim is a veteran midfielder who has 132 caps for Saudi Arabia and has been a regular pillar to their team for over a decade.

Verdict: Saudi Arabia will be keen to settle on a coach and a decent showing at the World Cup would be a great start. Bert van Marwijk was the man to help qualify the Saudis before he departed, but Pizzi is the third coach to take charge following Edgardo Bauza’s short spell.

Saudi Arabia have the potential to spring a few surprises with a striker like Al-Sahlawi in the form he’s in, but most likely their World Cup dream will end in the group stage.

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Egypt

Road to Russia: Despite an early hiccup, Egypt had a seamless run to the World Cup. In the second round of African qualifying they had a 1-0 defeat in the first leg between Chad which put a spanner in the works. Egypt responded in fine style for the second leg winning 4-0 to advance on a 4-1 aggregate. They finished top of Group E in the third round of qualifying with just one loss.

Coach: Hector Cuper has done wonders for Egypt since he took over in 2015. In the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt went all the way to the final where they narrowly lost 2-1 to Cameroon. Cuper has guided his team to their first World Cup since 1990.

Key Players: Mohamed Salah had a record-breaking season for Liverpool and is a talisman for his national team. He scored five goals during qualifying which was equal-most with Prejuce Nakoulma from Burkina Faso. Salah has electric pace in full flight and is pivotal to Egypt’s fortunes.

Ahmed Hegazi is a regular for the national team and an imposing presence at centre-back. He had a solid season with West Brom Albion but their relegation means he could be on the move elsewhere. He has the chance to make his mark at the World Cup to create some interest from bigger clubs.

Verdict: Mohamed Salah’s shoulder injury in the Champions League final is a huge blow for Egypt before the World Cup even begins. If Salah is fit and able to play in any of the group stage matches he’ll enhance Egypt’s possibility of progressing past the group stage. However, it’s hard to see them go far without Salah as it’s an enormous void to fill.

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Uruguay

Road to Russia: Finished second on the table in a 10-team tournament between nations from South America. The top four countries after 18 fixtures qualified for the World Cup which from first to fourth place were Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia respectively. The fifth-placed nation Peru headed to the inter-confederation play-offs.

Coach: Oscar Tabarez has had a long-standing in Uruguayan football, his first World Cup for the national team was all the way back in 1990. He departed after that tournament in Italy but got a second stint in 2006 and has been the coach ever since.

Key Players: Luis Suarez is already Uruguay’s all-time leading goalscorer and is still a world-class striker for club and country. He’s been prolific for Barcelona helping them win titles and for his country he’s always a threat in front of goal.

Edinson Cavani scored the most goals during South American qualifying with 10 and together with Suarez they form a lethal partnership upfront.

Verdict: With a few world-class players at their disposal, it’s hard to see Uruguay not topping the group to reach the knockout stage. Getting to the quarter-finals is realistically where they can end up.

The leadership of skipper Diego Godin in defence cannot be underestimated as he’s a rock for his country and Atletico Madrid. He’s widely regarded as one of the best centre-backs in the world and his nous will come to the fore.

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Liam Watson is covering Melbourne Victory this season while completing Media and Communications at La Trobe University.