1300 BST, Friday 15 June, Central Stadium (Yekaterinburg) BBC 1
Egypt begin their first World Cup campaign since 1990 when they meet South American side Uruguay in Yekaterinburg, but they will likely have to make do without star player and national icon Mo Salah.
The Liverpool forward dislocated his shoulder in May’s Champions League final and, despite returning to training, he’s not been able to get fit in time.
Without Salah, Egypt are nothing much to baulk at, but they could yet prove to be the Uruguayans’ toughest test of Group A on their way to topping the table – La Celeste are considered as strong favourites to win the group.
With Russia and Saudi Arabia the other two teams comprising the group, there’s a possibility for the Pharaohs to qualify in second place, which puts more pressure on their following two fixtures than this, but they will, nonetheless, look to get their campaign off to a positive start, with the hopes of a nation resting on 23 players’ shoulders.
Finishing in second place in the CONMEBOL’s qualifying group, Uruguay had a trouble-free qualification campaign, whilst Egypt, similarly, only lost once in the CAF’s third qualification stage, with Salah scoring a 94th minute penalty in the penultimate round of games to seal their fate.
The Pharaohs, however, haven’t won since October 2017 and lost their last three warm-up fixtures, whilst Uruguay won their one and only game, a 3-0 victory over Uzbekistan.
Last Time Out
Belgium 3-0 Egypt [International Friendly]
Egypt ended their pre-World Cup warm-up matches in miserable fashion with a 3-0 defeat to Group G favourites Belgium, flying to Russia, therefore, off the back of two draws and a loss in their three games against Kuwait, Colombia and the Red Devils.
With 42% of possession and just a solitary effort on target, the Pharaohs were poor against Belgium, as Romelu Lukaku, converting Eden Hazard’s parried effort, and the Chelsea forward himself firing the Red Devils to a 2-0 lead at the break.
Egypt lacked an incisive edge without key man Mo Salah and Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini -widely expected to leave the club this summer- added a third in the second minute of stoppage time at the end of the game.
Uruguay 3-0 Uzbekistan [International Friendly]
The South American heavyweights ended their warm-up campaign with a stylish 3-0 victory over the ten men of Uzbekistan, heading off to Russia expecting to sit atop Group A.
Giorgian De Arrascaeta sent the Uruguayans ahead after 15 minutes after a flick on from Carlos Sanchez, before Luis Suarez, the star man, doubled the lead from the spot after a penalty was awarded for a handball.
Atletico Madrid Jose Maria Gimenez centre back made it three with a header from a corner, before Uzbekistan saw Akramjon Komilov sent off eleven minutes from time.
This ensures La Celeste head to Russia with three straight victories, undefeated in their last nine games.
Egypt are still sweating over the fitness and availability of Salah, and it is looking increasingly likely that he may have to sit this one out.
Manager Cuper, therefore, may well opt to stick with the side that started the recent 3-0 defeat to Belgium.
Premier League fans will recognise Ahmed Hegazi and Ramadan Sobhi, who were both relegated last season with West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City, respectively, with Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny the enforcer in the middle of the pitch.
NOTE: Egyptian manager Hector Cuper has confirmed that Mo Sahal is “almost 100%” certain to start against Uruguay.
The formidable partnership of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez will start this one as the pair look to get their campaigns off to flying starts.
Nandez Acosta and veteran Cristian Rodriguez will battle it out for one of the wider positions, with each playing 45 minutes in the win over Uzbekistan.
Long-standing captain Diego Godin will lead the side out, partnered by Atletico Madrid teammate Jose Maria Gimenez, in what may well be the 32-year-old’s final World Cup.
Key Battle: Ahmed Hegazi (Egypt) vs Luis Suarez (Uruguay)
Ahmed Hegazi’s season in the Midlands started brightly -with a debut goal and two Man of the Match performances in the Baggies’ opening two wins- though his decline in form mirrored that of his team’s demise.
After suffering relegation last term, Hegazi will hope to have a positive summer to put himself in the domestic shop window for next season.
Luis Suarez, by contrast, has had another tremendous season at the Camp Nou with Barcelona -scoring the third-most goals in La Liga (25)-, and will break the 100-cap mark for his country this summer.
With Salah likely to be absent from the squad on Friday, Uruguay will have less to worry about defensively, which will enable them to pile more pressure on the Egyptian back four.
Suarez is a wily forward, always looking to gain an advantage on his opponent using any means necessary, so Hegazi will need to remain alert, but calm, most importantly, in the face of Suarez’s mind games.
A Salah-less Egypt
Much of the debate from an Egypt point of view in the build-up to the tournament has been the question mark over the fitness and injury to their star man, Mo Salah.
Sustaining an injury in the Champions League final during a coming together with Spain and Real Madrid man, Sergio Ramos, his shoulder is showing signs of healing, but may not be fully healed in time for Friday.
Salah is a man of great importance for the Pharaohs -as he would be for any nation-, but the main problem is that Egypt’s attack looks blunt without him as their focal point. They lack a cutting edge and directness, without any other player to take the initiative.
With this game unlikely to have much of a bearing on the second-place qualification spot, it’s important that Salah’s fit for the matches against Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Working together for a better future
Uruguay are extremely lucky. Not only do they have two of the world’s best centre backs at the heart of their team, but two of the best finishers in the game spearheading their attack – Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Key for La Celeste is getting the duo to work together in tandem, rather than having two individual strikers playing up front.
Perhaps, therefore, the key is to drop Suarez deeper. Creating 41 La Liga chances compared to Cavani’s 34 in Ligue 1 -and registering double as many assists-, the Barcelona striker is more of a complete forward, meaning he can drop in-between the lines and look to taker the mantle of chance creation, with Cavani free to lead the goal scoring charge.
This puts both players in their own space, rather than having them tread on each other’s toes.
The importance of creativity
Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez typically plays a 4-4-2 formation, with two banks of four protecting the goal and filling space, creating a solid unit difficult to break down. Midfield robustness, therefore, is the order of the day, with the focus on vertical passing from the back to get the ball into Cavani and Suarez.
It’s a very defensive style of football ideal for hitting possession-based teams quickly on the break. Against Egypt, however, this won’t work.
La Celeste will be expected to dominate the ball and take the initiative, which requires a creative midfielder to cut open a low block defence. With the addition of Rodrigo Bentancur, Tabarez has just the answer to this tactical conundrum.
Bentancur has a wide range of passing, adding a more ‘European’ element to Uruguay’s game, which injects the midfield with creativity and provides better service to the forwards.
Prediction: Egypt 0-3 Uruguay
The absence of Salah -no matter how much the squad try to deflect the situation- will affect the Pharaohs, as Egypt thus don’t have a player to take the initiative in games. Moreover, Salah is more than just a player, a national icon, and losing anyone of that stature is knock to belief, confidence and morale.
At the other end, Suarez and Cavani won’t give defenders a moment of rest and will be hungry all game. An early goal for the Uruguayans could see the Pharaohs’ heads drop and the result spiral out of control.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group A in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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