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What to expect from Arab national teams in the 2018 World Cup

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(Last Updated On: 29/04/2018)

On 15 January 2015, FIFA confirmed that, for the first time in the history of the World Cup, all 209 remaining eligible Member Associations registered their national teams for the preliminary World Cup Qualification Competition.

872 games later, on 15 November 2017, only 31 of these teams remained, having successfully qualified to compete in the 2018 World Cup alongside hosts Russia.

Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco were all able to secure one of the five slots available in the final tournament for Confederation of African Football (CAF) teams. Together with Saudi Arabia, who took one of the slots available for Asian Football Confederation (AFC) teams, the four Arab nations make Russia the most ‘Arab World Cup’ ever.

Iran also qualified for the world cup after finishing as the AFC’s Third Round Group A winners. This means that a new milestone has been reached as five teams from the Middle East and North Africa will be competing for the FIFA World Cup trophy, as well as one team from Muslim-majority Nigeria.

As the competition nears, here is what we can expect to see from some of the Arab players and their national teams…

Mehdi Benatia, Morocco and Juventus centre-back

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1. Mohammad al-Sahlawi, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s journey to the World Cup has not been trouble free.

Not only are Saudi Arabia the lowest-ranked qualifiers, but they have also lost two managers in the process of qualifying. Taking Saudi Arabia to their first World Cup in over a decade was not enough to see Bert van Marwijk keep his job, and now, after Edgardo Bauza’s brief stint as manager, it is up to Argentinian Juan Antonio Pizzi to take the team to Russia.

Pizzi is looking to improve on Saudi Arabia’s 1994 performance in the World Cup when they were knocked out by Sweden in the last 16.

Though The Guardian’s John Duerden has given the Saudi national team 1,000-1 odds of winning, Pizzi’s ambition may not be too unrealistic, especially with the way striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi has been playing recently.

Al-Sahlawi, who plays for the Riyadh-based Al-Nassr FC, scored 16 goals in the qualifying stages, making him the joint-top goal scorer alongside Polish qualifying national Robert Lewandowski – perhaps reflecting the level of Asia’s footballing nations.

Sahlawi is now on his way to spend three weeks at Manchester United to work on his game ahead of the World Cup. If Sahlawi learns from this experience and continues in the form he is in, we can expect him to bag a few more goals in the World Cup too.

No doubt he will be supported by a strong team as the Saudi Arabian Football Federation has also recently signed an agreement with La Liga to loan nine Saudi nationals to Spanish teams to further boost their World Cup chances.

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2. Mohamed Salah, Egypt

Making their long-awaited return to the World Cup, Egypt will be joining Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia and Uruguay, in Group A of the group stages.

Egypt first qualified for the World Cup in 1934, and then had to wait 56 years before making their second appearance in 1990.

Though they have dominated the African Cup of Nations, winning it an astounding seven times – most recently in 2010 as they secured their third consecutive victory – Egypt has never faired that well on the World Stage.

Argentine manager Héctor Cúper is hoping to change this story by taking Egypt past the group stages in their third World Cup appearance.

To do this, they will need to score goals. And this is where Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah will play a big part. The 25-year-old scored five goals in the final round of the qualifiers to take Egypt into the World Cup.

Salah has also been voted as the PFA Player of the Year 2017-2018. In the Premier League, he is leading the race for the golden boot having scored 31 goals in 33 League games so far.

While Cúper has often been criticised for his defensive style, we can certainly expect Egypt to be on the offensive with Salah leading the way with the backing of Arsenal’s defensive midfielder Mohamed Elneny and West Bromwich centre-back Ahmed Hegazi.

If anything, Cúper’s defensive strategy will give the Egyptian strikers more confidence as only once in 30 games have Egypt conceded more than one goal since he has been in charge.

Coupled with goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary set to become the oldest player at a World Cup at 45 years old, Egypt is a team full of experience and ability, and a lot can be expected from their return to the competition. Don’t be surprised if Egypt get out of their group…

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3. Aymen Abdennour, Tunisia

Following a 12-year absence from the World Cup, Tunisia has qualified for Russia 2018 with the highest FIFA ranking of any Arab team.

Positioned at 28 in FIFA rankings, Tunisia will be competing in Group G against Belgium (ranked at 5), England (ranked at 12) and Panama (ranked at 49). Certainly, Tunisia has their work cut out for them, and they will need to work hard to get points against the European teams in their group.

This is the job of manager Nabil Maâloul, who is hoping to take Tunisia past the group stages for the first time in five World Cup appearances. His strategy of a 4-2-3-1 formation worked well in the CAF Group A Third Round Qualification matches, where Tunisia emerged unbeaten.

Focusing on defence, the full-backs are expected to execute counter-attacks with speed by going forward and assisting the strikers. This responsibility falls on the shoulders of the 28-year-old defenders Aymen Abdennour and Ali Maâloul.

Abdennour, currently on a one-year loan deal at Olympique de Marseille, is no stranger to the international stage. As well spending time at Monaco, Abdennour has played in Spain with Valencia. His domestic performances earned him his position in the Tunisian international squad, and we can expect Abdennour to use his experience as he looks to score his second goal for his country.

Goals will also be needed from Tunisia’s strikers. For that, Tunisia may turn to Youssef Msakni, who scored a crucial hat-trick against Guinea in the qualifying stages. Msakni will also have the backing of Leicester’s Premier League title-winning defender Yohan Benalouane.

Tunisia has some big games ahead of them, and they will need to be at their best if they want to progress.

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4. Nabil Dirar, Morocco

Alongside Saudi Arabia and Algeria, Morocco has played the most matches of any Arab team in the World Cup, at 13. This is a record they share despite having been absent from the World Cup since 1998.

Twenty years after they were knocked out of the group stages in France, manager Hervé Renard is taking a strong Moroccan team bravely to Russia later this year for their fifth World Cup.

Morocco breezed through the qualifying stages, finishing in first place of the CAF Group C Third Round Qualification matches without having conceded a single goal.

The historical footballing nation also recently won the 2018 African Nations Championship, following from the momentum from Wydad Casablanca’s CAF Champions League title ahead of Egypt’s super club Al Ahly. Doing the same in the World Cup group stages will not be as easy. Morocco is meeting Iran, Portugal and Spain in Group B.

The Moroccan national team needs to keep up their excellent form to stand a chance against the big teams in their group. Fortunately, Morocco is not bereft of amazing talent. 32-year-old Nabil Dirar is a versatile and strong mid-fielder who, in 2012 and then 2017, helped Monaco win the French Ligue 2 and then Ligue 1 consecutively.

Morocco can be expected to bring a whole range of talent to the World Cup alongside Dirar. Juventus centre-back, Mehdi Benatia, will be expected to continue holding the strong defence that helped Morocco qualify with a clean sheet, while up-front Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech and CD Leganés’ Nordin Amrabat will be expected to be assisting in scoring goals.

Morocco also boats Real Madrid’s Achraf Hakimi and Wolves star Romain Saïss in defence; with Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal and Shalke 04’s Amine Harit in midfield. This is a strong team that had left the likes of Oussama Assaidi, Marouane Chamakh and a frustrated Adel Taarabt out of their call-ups in recent years.

Like Tunisia, Morocco has some big games ahead of them. Renard has taken both Zambia and the Ivory Coast to victory in the African Cup of Nations. If anyone can help lead Morocco to post-group stage glory on the World Stage, it may be him.