The Pharaohs’ reliance on the Liverpool star was their undoing at the 2018 World Cup, and they risk faltering if he doesn’t fire
The 2018 World Cup in Russia promised a lot for Hector Cuper’s Egypt side. On the face of it, they’d been drawn in a relatively straightforward group which comprised host nation Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia.
That factor, coupled with the fact the North Africans’ top player Mohamed Salah was set to feature at the showpiece on the backend of arguably the greatest individual season in Premier League history, was seemingly to the Pharaohs’ benefit.
In his maiden campaign at Liverpool, the Wideman scored a staggering 32 goals in the league – the highest for a 38 game season – and was deservedly named PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
After tangling with Sergio Ramos on the half-hour mark, the forward injured his left shoulder, was substituted and was a major doubt to feature in Russia.
Even though Salah eventually graced the showpiece, and scored Egypt’s two goals at the tournament, he was clearly unhealthy, and his lack of fitness hampered Cuper’s troops given they depended on him extremely.
The Argentine coach paid the price for failing to find alternate solutions to the North African nation’s challenges, and was jettisoned shortly after they exited the competition, with the Egyptian Football Association electing to not renew his contract.
He was replaced by the experienced Javier Aguirre, who took the reins in August 2018.
“Mohamed Salah is a player in my team, just like the remaining 22 players. All of them are Egypt’s players,” the 60-year-old began.
“Reaching this stage is very important, Salah is like the rest of the players and has equal chances, but he is also a very special player.”
It remains to be seen if the players will heed their manager’s words and take greater responsibility at the Afcon, but at least, he’s saying the right things.
However, it won’t be easy for the Pharaohs to do things differently.
At the continental showpiece in Gabon two years ago, Salah was involved in four of the Pharaohs’ five goals in the competition – chipping in with two goals and as many assists – as Cuper’s side made it to their first final since 2010.
They may have been defeated 2-1 by Cameroon at the final hurdle, but Salah’s performances prompted inclusion in the Africa Cup of Nations Team of the Tournament.
He then followed that up with five of Egypt’s eight goals in their qualifying campaign for last year’s World Cup.
While the presence of an exceptional player in a side often leads to his teammates entrusting him to deliver the goods from time to time, challenges spring up when the said player has an off day and is playing below his required standard.
Ironically, there’s a school of thought which believes the absence of a team’s leading performer leads to others rising up to provide what’s expected on the day.
Nonetheless, the jury is still out on Aguirre’s side having enough match winners in Salah’s absence.
Against Tanzania in their first warm-up friendly, they struggled to put away an excessive amount of scoring chances before skipper Ahmed Elmohamady scored just after the hour to seal an unconvincing 1-0 win.
The same pattern followed against Guinea on Sunday as the Pharaohs played out to a 3-1 win.
Aguirre’s side were drawing 1-1 until Salah’s introduction helped them to the eventual success.
Unsurprisingly, the talisman was involved in two of the hosts’ goals in the final 30 minutes which carried them to the win.
On the face of it, while the Afcon hosts ought to have enough in the tank to dispatch Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda in Group A, their run to the top of the proverbial continental mountain will get more difficult in the knockout stages. Solely relying on their talisman to carry them to their eighth African title (their first since 2010) could be their undoing.
For Salah, though, he comes into another international tournament after another stellar campaign on Merseyside.
Even though Jurgen Klopp’s top frontman didn’t quite hit the same numbers this year – he netted 22 league goals, 10 fewer than his return in 2017/18 – the year ended with silverware this time with the Reds defeating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in the Champions League final.
Salah’s preparation this time around has also been different too. Having been rushed for last year’s global showpiece, he’s had ample rest this year and is likely to be in better head space heading into the competition.
Be that as it may, Aguirre can’t afford to throw all his eggs in one basket in if his side are to claim the title on home soil, consequently repeating the feat from 2006.
Of all the pre-tournament favorites, they seem to be the most reliant on their star player to secure results, a flawed approach in itself.
That strategy failed Cuper at two major tournaments and Aguirre risks falling into the same pitfall if his side fails to get rid of their extreme overreliance on its star player.