CAIRO • Egypt coach Javier Aguirre believes the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) hosts are confident of defeating Zimbabwe today in the opening match of a tournament expanded to 24 teams and staged in mid-year for the first time.
The Pharaohs, ranked 58th in the Fifa world rankings, lie 51 places higher than their opponents ahead of their Group A clash, and have won three of the four previous Cup of Nations they hosted.
"We are the favourites to win the 2019 Africa Cup," said 60-year-old Aguirre, the first Mexican to guide a nation that has won the competition a record seven times.
"Egypt are playing at home, can count on passionate support and have Mohamed Salah, the best footballer in Africa."
Salah has returned home after another stellar season with Liverpool, which he completed by scoring the first goal in a 2-0 Champions League final triumph over Tottenham.
His 22 Premier League goals gave him a share of the Golden Boot title with two fellow Africans, Senegalese Sadio Mane, his clubmate, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon and Arsenal.
Aguirre said fears that his talisman may be jaded after a long season of Premier League and Champions League football are unfounded.
"Mohamed took a holiday after the Champions League final, did not play in our first warm-up match and came on only after half-time in the second," he insisted.
Egypt beat fellow qualifiers Tanzania and Guinea and what pleased Aguirre most was not the results, but the large number of scoring chances the Pharaohs created.
"We had about 20 chances to score against the Tanzanians and almost as many against the Guineans. That is very encouraging," he said.
Aguirre also dismissed the view that Egypt rely too heavily on Salah, saying: "We have selected 23 footballers who are totally committed to the cause of winning the Cup.
"It is impossible for one footballer to win a Cup of Nations on his own. All the players are mentally and physically ready and we look forward to a victory over Zimbabwe."
The countries have met only once in a Cup of Nations with Egypt winning 2-1 in Tunisia 15 years ago.
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda are the other teams in Group A and they meet tomorrow, also at the Cairo International Stadium.
The difference in world rankings between Egypt (58th) and Zimbabwe (109th), who clash in Group A of the Africa Cup of Nations today.
Group winners and runners-up qualify for the round of 16 along with the best four of the six third-place finishers.
Mane will lead a credible challenge from Senegal, although the forward will miss his country's first Group C game against Tanzania on Sunday as he is suspended because of an accumulation of yellow cards in the qualifiers.
Three-time winners Nigeria return after missing the last two Finals and are always contenders, while Ghana continue their quest for a first title since a fourth in 1982.
Ghana have reached at least the semi-finals in the previous six Afcon Finals, but have fallen short of the top step - losing the 2010 and 2015 finals.
Cameroon were surprise champions for a fifth time in 2017, when they beat Egypt 2-1 in the final in Gabon, and they are in a similar position this time with mediocre form since that triumph, leaving them as outsiders to retain the title.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS