Resilient Egypt Hard Done By But Now Need To Let Loose Against Russia
Watching the Egypt-Uruguay match yesterday, you could look at Jose Maria Gimenez’s 89th-minute winner in contrasting ways. From an Uruguayan perspective, you could claim that they got their just reward for the pressure they put on the opposition defence over the course of the game. From an Egyptian point of view, it was cruel to end up with nothing after being so resilient and disciplined for so long, especially when their star player was sidelined.
Many will point to Mohamed Salah’s absence as costing Egypt in the end and, as I stated in the days leading up to the tournament, the Pharaohs are abysmally toothless in attack without the Liverpool man. Granted, they didn’t have a glut of clearcut chances in Yekaterinburg yesterday, but whenever they did work the ball into threatening positions, they never truly tested Fernando Muslera in the Uruguay goal. Their attacking players played peripheral roles, with centre-forward Marwan Mohsen ploughing a thankless furrow up top. Amr Warda, the man who played in Salah’s position, was lively in the first half but then faded and became ineffective. Very little was seen of Abdallah Said and Mahmoud Trezeguet, neither of whom could complain if they were to drop out of the team for the Russia game on Tuesday in favour of Salah (if fit) and Ramadan Sobhi, who came on as a substitute too late to have any telling impact.
Some would have been surprised and maybe disappointed not to see Essam El-Hadary in the starting line-up, the 45-year-old goalkeeper being made to wait for his chance to make World Cup history. It’s a chance that he looks less likely to get after a fine performance from Ahmed El-Shenawy, who produced two excellent saves in the second half from Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and looked assured throughout. Coach Hector Cuper will also have been encouraged by the performance of Mohamed Elneny, who hasn’t always impressed with Arsenal but generally steps up his game in the red of Egypt.
It was felt in many quarters that a draw would have been a good result for the Egyptians against a team billed as the strongest in their group, which most likely explains the cautious, disciplined approach taken by the Pharaohs yesterday. For long spells, it looked as if Cuper’s tactics would be justified, with Uruguay’s star men cutting frustrated figures. Even when the South Americans managed to infiltrate Egypt’s well-drilled back four, they found El-Shenawy a fiendishly tough nut to crack until that last-gasp header from Gimenez.
The cold, hard truth of the final score, though, yielded no return for the Egyptians, who are lodged on zero points in Group A along with hapless Saudi Arabia, while Russia and Uruguay lead the way with three points apiece. A draw in their first game would have been a positive outcome for the north Africans, but the opening results now leave them with a must-win assignment against a host nation buoyant following their demolition of the Saudis. The asterisk beside that win, though, is the naivety of the opposition; Russia certainly wouldn’t get the same level of charity off too many other sides in the tournament.
The need for victory, though, will require a change in approach from the normally conservative Cuper. His decision to leave Salah out yesterday may yet be vindicated if the Liverpool man is fully fit for Tuesday and is at his best in St. Petersburg. If he doesn’t make it back in time for that game, a nation will be fervently hoping that the other attackers in the squad can rediscover the sharpness that has been missing ever since they qualified for the tournament last October. Those in midfield will need to be more enterprising when they have the ball, although Elneny looks capable of stepping up another gear as the circumstances require.
Egypt are certainly good enough to get their World Cup back on track, but it will take a rolling of the dice from their coach and a greater impetus in the final third of the pitch for that to happen. Otherwise, they are in serious danger of being among the first couple of teams to be eliminated from the 2018 World Cup. The safety net has been pulled from under them by the noggin of Gimenez.