2017 FIFA Confederations Cup Preview: Group A

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FIFA’s preliminary test prior to the World Cup, the Confederations Cup, is set to take center stage this weekend in Russia with eight nations aiming to build momentum towards next summer’s tournament.

Comprised of each continent’s reigning champion along with the reigning World Cup holders and 2018 World Cup hosts Russia, the Confederations Cup lacks the prestige of other major international tournaments such as Copa America and the Euro Cup. However, it does fill the void in the year before the World Cup and will feature some of the world’s best players and international footballing powerhouses to entertain sports fans in a dead period of the sports calendar.

Russia and New Zealand are set to kick off the tournament’s Group A on June 17. Group A features the best in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and European champion Portugal; the beloved El Tri; and host Russia and an underdog New Zealand side that will hope to survive what is an intriguing assortment of squads.

Who will be left for the Final Four when the dust settles on group stage play in Russia? Let’s find out:

Russia

Russia hosts FIFA’s trial run before next summer’s World Cup – and like 2014 World Cup host Brazil – the Russians hope for a forecast of contending on home turf in 2018, with a strong showing in this showcase tournament.

Unlike the star-studded Brazilians, the 2018 WC hosts will look to contend with a roster heavily reliant on homegrown players from their own domestic league.

In fact, all 23 players selected by manager Stanislav Cherchesov play in Russia’s top league. While that is common through the history of their National Team, the lack of a player with enough talent to leave to one of Europe’s top clubs showcases the lack of success the country has had in recent years in the development of world class players.

Gone are the days of former Arsenal winger Andrey Arshavin and former Tottenham striker Roman Pavlyuchenko and in its place is a Russian squad that lacks both strengths in youth in addition to players who can lead them to success on the big stage.

Russia failed to put forth a strong showing at Euro 2016 last summer, where a last-minute draw with England was their lone point earned in their last place Group B finish. The pressure is on to at least get out of the group stage as hosts. But with European champ Portugal and Mexico in the group, it’s hard to project success for a host nation that lacks the same quality on the pitch at present.

FIFA gave the hosts a big favor with an opening match against New Zealand that should earn them three points to start off the group stage. If the Russians can take advantage of the benefit of an easy draw to start the tournament and salvage a draw against Ronaldo’s Portugal side or against El Tri, the knockout round is likely.

It will be a tall task, but with home-field advantage and a likely defensive strategy, the Russians could claw their way into a respectable finish that will prevent a crisis before 2018. Unfortunately for Russia, their squad of players from their domestic league just don’t have the quality to predict them to finish ahead of the star-studded rosters of Portugal and Mexico.

Prediction: Third in Group A. 
 

PORTUGAL

Portugal comes into the Confederations Cup as the European champion after Cristiano Ronaldo finally won a major international trophy — but not without controversy.

Portugal failed to win a single group stage match in France and only made it to the knockout round due to a new tournament format that included third placed teams for the first time.

That backdoor route to the knockout stage bred further controversy as it took until the semi-final for Portugal to win a match in regulation before they knocked off Gareth Bale’s Wales with a 2-0 success through goals from Ronaldo and former Manchester United winger Nani.

However, Ronaldo and his teammates deserve credit for taking their opportunity and surviving to knock off the hosts in the final with a 1-0 win in extra time to win the Euros over a heavily favored French squad. Now, after an international triumph and yet another Champions League crown under his belt with Real Madrid, Ronaldo will set his sights on World Cup success in 2018.

The best player in the world is currently red-hot with 11 goals in UEFA Qualifying, but Portugal’s success in this tournament will rely on the support around Ronaldo. Players like Renato Sanches rose to stardom last summer during Portugal’s title triumph and will need to do so again if they are to make a deep run in Russia. This tournament gives players like Sanches – who struggled in his first season at FC Bayern – the chance to prove they can be consistent as secondary figures for Ronaldo to maintain their spot as one of the best international squads.

The most talented side in Group A, Portugal present themselves as a team to watch for next summer and build some valuable confidence as they battle with Switzerland in their qualifying group for their spot in 2018. Armed with the best player in the tournament, Portugal should cruise to the knockout round despite a tricky opening match with the always tough El Tri.

Prediction: First in Group A

NEW ZEALAND

Oceania’s representative in the Confederations Cup, New Zealand enter the tournament as the unknown underdogs and likely whipping boys of Group A.

Best known for its shocking run in the 2010 World Cup – where the All-Whites earned a draw with Italy and drew all three of their group stage matches – New Zealand’s squad is built off a faceless identity for good reason. Without a notable player on the club scene, the All-Whites rely on team spirit and a squad based around players from Australia’s A-League to attempt to punch above their weight class in major tournaments.

To New Zealand’s credit, manager Anthony Hudson has brought on some youth talents to gain valuable experience this summer. 17-year-old defender Dane Ingham, who plays for the A-League’s Brisbane Roar and 20-year-old Sam Brotherton, who signed with relegated Premier League club Sunderland in February, both could showcase themselves as young talents should they get on the pitch in the group stage.

Brotherton’s story will be interesting to Americans as the defender came to play in the NCAA with a stint at Wisconsin to help earn his contract with Sunderland.

The All-Whites also feature further North American content as defender Kip Colvey is in the San Jose Earthquakes system and was born in Hawaii and presently plies his trade on loan in the USL for Reno 1868 FC. The fact that players from the second divisions of North American soccer feature on this New Zealand squad says all you need to know about the disparity in talent on the All-Whites compared to the rest of Group A.

There is always a chance at a shock upset, but New Zealand will be lucky to salvage any points at this tournament with a squad that is simply not up to par to the rest of the competition.
Prediction: Last in Group A

Mexico

Fresh off a 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca in their CONCACAF World Cup Qualifier against the Americans, El Tri will enter Russia with the hope of building confidence for next summer. This tournament serves some importance for a Mexico side that has still failed to end their long run of heartbreak in the World Cup Round of 16, and manager Juan Carlos Osorio has stated the importance of a strong showing in the Confederations Cup with a full-strength 23-man roster.

The inclusion of all of Mexico’s star players is an indication of Osorio’s desire to make a deep run in this tournament, even with the 2017 Gold Cup looming in July for El Tri back in North America. The Confederations Cup appears to be the primary objective for Osorio and with it will come pressure to deliver a strong showing against competition that could be likely opponents in next summer’s World Cup.

Mexico’s run to this tournament included mixed results as El Tri earned a 3-0 win in their World Cup Qualifier against Honduras and a 3-1 friendly win over Ireland, but dropped a 2-1 result at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to Croatia and looked uninspiring against the USMNT on June 11 in the 1-1 draw. With just a week turnaround before a crucial opener against Europen champs Portugal, the level of play from Mexico will need to elevate if they are to advance to the knockout round out of Group A.

The good news for Mexico is that their draw provides a slightly easier path to the knockout round than Portugal, who will need to play hosts Russia immediately after the first round of Group A matches while El Tri will take on minnows New Zealand in their second match of the tournament. A draw or win against Portugal on Sunday could all but assure them a spot in the knockout round and avoid a pressure-packed scenario where Mexico would need a win over Russia on the final matchday of the group stage to advance to the semi-finals.

For both Mexico and Portugal, Sunday’s group stage opener at Kazan Arena will be paramount to their chances of making a run in this tournament and sets up an enticing battle between CONCACAF’s best and the best player in the world.

With most of Mexico’s golden generation still in place for what could be a final shot at a deep World Cup run, this tournament starts with a chance for El Tri’s veteran stars to make a statement in a major way. If they fail to live up to the task, survival in Group A will be difficult. However, the likes of Chicharito, Andres Guardado, Miguel Layun and Oribe Peralta are simply too good to count out of the knockout round entering the tournament.

Mexico has a tough task in front of them to win this tournament up against the giants of Germany, Chile and Ronaldo’s Portugal. But they should be in the Final Four when the dust is settled with a chance at the Confederations Cup title in the knockout round.

Prediction: Second in Group A