World Cup 2018: Egypt Preview
Can the Pharaohs get past Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Uruguay to make it into the knockout stages?
As a sea of camera phones whirred in the stands, Mohamed Salah placed the ball on the penalty spot. His country had waited 28 years for this moment. Their World Cup depended on a man enjoying the best season of his career, but even he looked pale and dishevelled with the weight of a nation on his back.
Arnold Mouto’s 88th-minute equaliser had killed the atmosphere two minutes before. Now, this injury-time penalty provided Egypt with the opportunity it deserved. It was about time Africa’s best team made it to the World Cup.
The ensuing celebrations have been recorded in painstaking detail elsewhere. Old men crying tears of joy as they sink to their knees. Triumphant masses singing in the streets and thrusting Egyptian flags through sunroofs or on to their balconies. The Pharaohs, after decades of embarrassments and near-misses, had finally arrived.
Road to Russia
With talents like Amr Zaki and Mohamed Aboutrika to call on, Egypt should have been more regular guests at the World Cup. A 1-0 loss to Uganda in September 2017 was another setback for a team that had always boasted a propensity to slip up in qualifying, but Mohamed Salah proved the difference in a victory by the same score in Alexandria just days later.
13 points was more than enough to seal their place as the rest of their group faltered to draws – Uganda, in particular, rued their lack of goal scoring with just three goals in the six qualification games.
A hardened victory against Congo in Brazzaville was the defining fixture of this campaign. Egypt had already qualified by the time they repulsed Ghana on the Cape Coast. This is a team which knows how to grind out results, having won all of their games by a two goal margin or less.
Hector Cuper is far from cavalier. A nearly man with Inter and Valencia, the Argentine is a student of the Helenio Herrera school.
His wily 4-2-3-1 relies on the mobility of Mohamed Elneny whilst hoping that Mohamed Salah can bring his Liverpool form for the national team.
West Brom player Ahmed Hegazi will marshall the backline for Egypt and his performances will be key if they are to keep clean sheets and progress.
The squad is one of the most experienced at the World Cup as there are 871 games of international experience in the 23-man squad.
Key Player: Essam El-Hadary
Hopes might rest on Salah, but much will depend on the reliability of 45-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary.
He has seen it all since making his international debut in 1996, everything, except the pressure and expectations of a World Cup.
The surroundings would be choking enough for a younger man, but El-Hadary will be reliant on his experience to offer a calming authority to a relatively unproven defence.
Egypt will be glad to face Uruguay first in Ekaterinburg on 15th June.
It is this game which offers the most stringent opposition to their qualification hopes, with talented midfielders such as Fede Valverde and Lucas Torreira sure to impose themselves on proceedings. And don’t forget about their front two of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, a scary prospect for any team to face.
If the Pharaohs can get a result here, then their prospects will be much brighter.
Sergei Ignashevich’s decision to come out of international retirement for the tournament speaks volumes about the depleted Russia squad, who, aside from wonderkid Aleksandr Golovin, offer precious little both in defence and attack.
Saudi Arabia are an unknown quantity and for good reason. Egypt should pulverize their Arab neighbours in the final fixture in Volgograd. To progress, they will need to defeat Saudi Arabia and one other side from the group.
Prediction: Round of 16 exit
Egypt will have to battle past Russia and Uruguay if they are to make it to the Round of 16, something which they are more than capable of doing.
With Mo Salah, arguably the form player in World football, and a decent squad around him they are more than capable of ousting at least one of Russia and Uruguay.
Russia have been struggling as of late and will have the most pressure of any team at the World Cup with the expectation that the hosts can go on a deep run. Uruguay are a formidable side though they are beatable.
Egypt, therefore, will have to battle hard, but they should make it into the Round of 16.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group C in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.