Thanks to Mohamed Salah’s shoulder Egypt head into the World Cup as one of the most covered teams — a novelty, not least because this is their first time at the tournament since 1990.
HOW THEY GOT THERE
Salah scored a dramatic stoppage-time penalty against Congo to seal the Pharaohs’ passage to Russia with a match to spare. Egypt came through the their group with four wins, a draw and just the solitary defeat to Uganda. It was one of the easier groups and with Salah on top form qualification was always likely.
Hector Cuper is well traveled, the Argentine spent a decade managing clubs in Spain and Italy, including spells at Inter Milan and Valencia, whom he led to two Champions League finals. He has a great pedigree and has been Egypt boss since 2015, since when he has molded the side in much the same way as he did his club sides, very defensive and solid with little room for expression or flair. This has led to some criticism, with fans wanting to see a more attacking setup. As if to emphasize his outlook, despite the optimistic fitness reports concerning Salah, Cuper has been at pains to stress the side has to remember it is a team game and not to rely on Salah.
Can be summed up in one word: Defensive. In his first 32 matches as Pharaohs coach the side only conceded 18 goals and until last week’s 3-0 reverse to Belgium had not lost by more than one goal. The defensive mindset has been instilled into the squad with the side having two holding midfielders, Mohamed Elneny and Tarek Hamed, in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Both those players will sit deep and rarely make bursting runs through the middle, it is a safety-first policy that has worked so far, and which Cuper will stick with. Elneny’s importance to Egypt cannot be overstated. He has improved during his time at Arsenal and his defensive duties are as key to the side’s chances of success as Salah’s shooting boots.
At the risk of being accused of predictability, we have to go with Salah. Such is the side’s defensive setup, they do rely a lot on the Liverpool ace’s attacking flair and goals. As if to illustrate his importance to the side, the 25-year-old had a hand in all seven of Egypt’s goals in qualification — scoring five and setting up the other two. There is still doubt over just how much of the group stage he will play in. Egypt’s first clash in Group A comes on Friday against Uruguay, a starting spot for that match may still be unlikely, the next few days will reveal more. But while it is possibly going too far to say they are a one-man team, Egypt do need a fit and firing Salah.
WORLD CUP HISTORY
Egypt have appeared in two World Cups, 1934 and 1990, and are yet to register a win. They were the first African nation to qualify for the tournament, but were beaten 4-2 by Hungary in their own match at the 1934 showpiece. They finished bottom of their group at the 1990 tournament with two draws and a defeat.
They are hard to break down and will not concede many goals in Russia. In Salah they have a genuine world-beater, if they can maintain that dogged defence and get Salah fit and firing then they will prove a tough test for any team. There is hope back home that not only can they get out of the group for the first time, but also possibly make the last eight.
Their strength could also prove to be a weakness. If Salah is not fit it is hard to see them scoring, which will put a lot of pressure on the backline.