The fates of World Cup Groups A and B will be decided today with host Russia and Spain among the sides in action.
In Group A, Russia plays Uruguay in Samara with both already qualified, and Saudi Arabia plays Egypt in a duel of the already eliminated in Volgograd.
In Group B, Spain plays Morocco in Kaliningrad, and Portugal plays Iran in Saransk. The winner of the Russia-Uruguay match will top Group A. If the game ends in a draw then the hosts will finish higher because of a superior goal-difference.
Things are a little more complicated in Group B because third-placed Iran can still cause an upset by beating Portugal to reach the last-16. Both Portugal and Spain need only a draw to go through but the top spot is also up for grabs and by the time they play they will know which team awaits the group winner and the group runner-up because Russia and Uruguay will have already played.
As things stand, Spain is ahead of Portugal because of a better disciplinary record. Both teams have the same points, goal difference and goals scored. If both Spain and Portugal win today then the margins of their victories will decide who finishes first.
Russia has only conceded one goal so far in these finals but its most experienced defender Sergey Ignashevich is wary of the threat posed by Barcelona's Luis Suarez and Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani. He told FIFA TV on Friday: "I think about how to contain Cavani and Suarez a lot.
"They apply heavy pressure on the defense, they're the main threat."
Entering the World Cup, Uruguay would have been heavy favorites to do just that after advancing from the group stage the past two tournaments. Things were a lot bleaker in the Russia camp, where the hosts are the lowest-ranked side in the FIFA rankings at the World Cup. But wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt by a combined 8-1 score have seen them through for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union and generated excitement across the nation.
Meanwhile, Egypt and Saudi Arabia leave the World Cup with regret but want to go home on a more positive note in the consolation group game between the two Arab sides. Egypt will leave Russia with a sense of disappointment that star striker Mohamed Salah was unable to make an impact after his shoulder injury playing for Liverpool in the Champions League final against Real Madrid curtailed his involvement.
Salah was on the bench for Egypt's opening game when they lost 1-0 to Uruguay and was probably not fully fit despite scoring from the penalty spot in the 3-1 defeat against Russia. The main regret for coach Hector Cuper was that Salah was unable to join in the full pre-tournament training camp with the rest of the squad.
Although Salah had recovered from a medical point of view, the missing few weeks of intensive training "might have meant his total physical ability was slightly reduced," Cuper said.
The Argentine coach may decide there is now no point in playing Salah for the consolation game against Arab rivals Saudi Arabia when "we will try to finish this World Cup in the best possible manner."
It could well be the last match in charge for 62-year-old Cuper although the coach sidestepped questions about his future after the defeat to Russia.
The future of Saudi Arabia's Spanish/Argentine coach Juan Antonio Pizzi may also be on the line after their heavy 5-0 opening-match defeat against Russia and a 1-0 loss to Uruguay. The two sides have met only once before in a FIFA competition when the Saudis beat Egypt 5-1 during the 1999 Confederations Cup.
The potentially fascinating twist in Group B is the possibility of Iran's Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, eliminating Portugal. "In this World Cup, one thing is clear: There are no unbeatable teams," he told Iranian television. The coach has declared this game "the most important" of his seven years in charge. And midfielder Saeed Ezatolahi asserted, "We are more confident than ever now." European champion Portugal wants a win against Iran to have a chance of topping their group.
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