Replication in Russia/Group A

Group A: Salah shoulders Egypt's dreams

A wall painting of Mohamed Salah in a Cairo coffee shop, where patrons were willing their fellow Egyptian on to glory with Liverpool against Real Madrid in the Champions League final. They would end up doubly disappointed; the Reds forward departed e
A wall painting of Mohamed Salah in a Cairo coffee shop, where patrons were willing their fellow Egyptian on to glory with Liverpool against Real Madrid in the Champions League final. They would end up doubly disappointed; the Reds forward departed early injured while his team went on to lose.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Forward faces challenge of taking Reds form to the biggest stage on his return from injury

Egyptian hieroglyphics, had it survived as a form of writing till today, will no doubt create new pictographs to honour the man their national football team have come to rely on.

And Egyptian scribes will be thankful that this art had been lost or they will need to work overtime on the chisel after Mohamed Salah put himself up as a Ballon d'Or candidate with an avalanche of records and accolades last season.

In his debut Liverpool campaign, he scored 44 goals in 52 games, earning him the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) Player of the Year and the Football Writers' Player of the Year awards, and a place in the PFA Team of the Year.

The 25-year-old is also the first footballer to win three Player of the Month awards and set a league record of 32 goals in a 38-game season en route to winning the Premier League Golden Boot.

On the World Cup trail, the Pharaohs qualified for Russia largely thanks to Salah's influence. Of his country's 12 goals in the qualifiers, he made twice and scored five, including a brace in the decisive 2-1 win over Congo that punched Egypt's ticket.

But Egypt are no Liverpool. The North African nation will be dreamers, not a dream team, at the World Cup where they will be in Group A alongside hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay.


A wall painting of Mohamed Salah in a Cairo coffee shop, where patrons were willing their fellow Egyptian on to glory with Liverpool against Real Madrid in the Champions League final. They would end up doubly disappointed; the Reds forward departed early injured while his team went on to lose. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Salah was not even born the last time his country played at the tournament in 1990.

It also must be noted that Egypt's coach is Hector Cuper, an Argentinian with a reputation for defensive football, earning him the sobriquet "Mini Cuper".

 

The tactician is known to be pragmatic. When Salah returns from a shoulder injury in mid-June, as suggested by the Egyptian FA, Cuper is likely to use his Formula One forward in a counter-attacking system, where he can charge at backpedalling markers and wrong-foot them before shooting.

While there are no statistics on the forward's actual speed, popular computer game Fifa 18 has ranked him the fastest player on the planet, giving him a 99 rating for pace, ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (both 98).


  • Russia

    KEY MAN: IGOR AKINFEEV

    He is the hosts' undisputed No. 1 and has earned more than 100 caps but doubts linger over the goalkeeper's reliability. At his best, he is Russia's answer to Manuel Neuer but there is also a bit of Loris Karius in him as he fumbled against South Korea and Algeria at the last World Cup, sending his country out of the tournament. His fans will hope it is the Neuer version that shows up this month.

    MANAGER: Stanislav Cherchesov

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 11 (seven as Soviet Union)

    BEST RESULT: Fourth (1966)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Group stage



    Egypt

    KEY MAN: MOHAMED ELNENY

    As Egypt fret over the timing of Mohamed Salah's return from injury, at least Mohamed Elneny, arguably their next most important player, will recover in time from ankle ligament damage. They will need the defensive midfielder, whose work rate has been rewarded with a contract extension by Arsenal, to be at his destructive best should Salah fail to be back.

    MANAGER: Hector Cuper

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 3

    BEST RESULT: Group stage (1934, 1990)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Did not qualify



    Uruguay

    KEY MAN: LUIS SUAREZ

    Two World Cups and two enduring controversies have been Luis Suarez's contributions to the greatest football tournament. From part-time goalkeeper to vampire, he misbehaved at the worst possible time to earn suspensions. Now 31, Uruguay will hope their best player can keep his halo firmly on.

    MANAGER: Oscar Tabarez

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 13

    BEST RESULT: Champions (1930, 1950)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Last 16



    Saudi Arabia

    KEY MAN: OSAMA HAWSAWI

    Since USA 1994, when they reached the second round for the first time, Saudi Arabia's Finals record has been poor - no wins, two draws, seven losses and a whopping 26 goals conceded. Captain Hawsawi is an experienced and solid centre-back, who will be relied upon to hold the fort and, up front, the 1.87m defender is also a threat at set-pieces.

    MANAGER: Juan Antonio Pizzi

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 5

    BEST RESULT: Last 16 (1994)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Did not qualify


    KEY MATCH

    Egypt v Uruguay (June 15, 8pm Singapore time)

    DID YOU KNOW?

    A total of 173,830 fans bought tickets to Uruguay's 1950 final-round game against Brazil in the Maracana for the World Cup's biggest gates. The actual attendance was estimated to be 200,000 as many got in without paying. Uruguay, as hosts in 1930, also set the record for the smallest crowd - 300 watched Romania versus Peru in Montevideo.

Russia's recent poor form and lack of experienced defenders and Saudi Arabia's status as the lowest-ranked team (67th) to qualify will give Egypt hope that their soak-and-strike strategy could expose these teams like dodgy pyramid schemes.

Score against Uruguay and Salah will be feted for a personal triumph over a former Anfield idol - Luis Suarez.

But the World Cup has also been a graveyard for strikers.

In 1998, French striker Stephane Guivarc'h top-scored with 21 goals in French Ligue 1 but suffered a nil return in five matches when Les Bleus won that year's World Cup.

Even defenders Laurent Blanc and Lilian Thuram outscored him, the shame of it all, as Guivarc'h remains a trivia question popular every four years and noted for the apostrophe in his name.

Need a better example? He is his country's record scorer with 53 goals in 119 appearances. He played in 11 matches across three Copa Mundials. And he has scored... just once at the World Cup.

His name - Wayne Rooney.

Not enough? Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic himself is not immune. The super Swede, never short of confidence and refers to himself in the third person, has never scored on the biggest stage.

But, for every Rooney, there is a Salvatore Schillaci.

The Italian started the 1990 World Cup unknown to the larger world and ended the competition with the Golden Boot.

Schillaci never hit those same heights again. In 16 internationals, he scored seven goals. Six of them came in Italia '90.

For one month, he flourished before fading. But he did not disappear without writing his name into World Cup lore.

Salah glittered from August to May. Shine again in June and Egypt could well extend their World Cup stay until July.

And maybe, just maybe, a new monument will be erected in Giza in tribute of the man they call the Egyptian King.


Talking points

WILL IT BE HOME SWEET HOME FOR RUSSIA?

The pressure is on for Russia to avoid making history of an unwanted kind. In 20 previous editions of the World Cup, only one host nation - South Africa in 2010 - failed to make it past the group stage. Stanislav Cherchesov's men have not won this year and tasted victory just thrice last year (beating Hungary, New Zealand and South Korea). History is also against them as they have never progressed beyond the group stage since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

WILL SAUDI ARABIA SCORE ANOTHER WONDER GOAL?

Saudi Arabia may not have the finest World Cup pedigree but they do boast one of the best goals scored in the tournament. In a 1994 group game against Belgium, forward Saeed Owairan ran from deep inside his own half, beat four players before slotting home. That sent the Green Falcons into their only second-round appearance.

WILL LUIS SUAREZ BARE HIS FANGS AGAIN?

This will be Gianni Infantino's first World Cup as Fifa president and he is keen to see his pet project, the Video Assistant Referees (VAR), succeed. And there is the perfect test subject in Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan star's previous two tournaments ended in controversy - a blatant handball in 2010 and sinking his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini for human sashimi four years later. Suarez was retrospectively punished only in 2014. The electronic eyes of the VAR will mete out instant justice.


 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Salah shoulders egypt's dreams'. Print Edition | Subscribe