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Saturday, 24 October 2020

Starring and struggling

Mohamed Al-Nenni beats out Mohamed Salah to the Community Shield, reports Marawan Zayed

Marawan Zayed, Tuesday 1 Sep 2020
Al-Nenni
Al-Nenni
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Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Al-Nenni played a starring role as Arsenal defeated Liverpool 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in normal time to win the Community Shield, the annual football match played between the winners of the Premier League and the FA Cup.

After spending last season on loan at Besiktas, it wasn’t really expected that Al-Nenni would play for Arsenal ever again. However, he came back ready to take his chance with Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and convinced the Spaniard to start him in such a crucial game after starring and scoring a beauty against MK Dons in Arsenal’s only friendly game this season before the Community Shield.

Against Liverpool Al-Nenni bossed the midfield against mega stars like Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner and Fabinho and didn’t put a foot wrong throughout the 90 minutes on Saturday 29 August. He was super confident, classy and played with bravery against the best team in England and one of the best in the world to repay the faith shown in him by Arteta.

On the other hand, and against the odds, it was Egypt’s other football star Mohamed Salah who struggled badly and just couldn’t get into the game. The two-time Premier League top scorer surely hoped to open his account in the first game of the 2020-2021 season but didn’t really get any clear-cut chances and failed to influence the game as Arsenal’s left back Kieran Tierny had a terrific match against the Egyptian.

The irony here is that if someone had told you before the game that Al-Nenni will start and star while Salah will struggle, you would have been excused for laughing given that Salah loves to play against Arsenal while Al-Nenni’s career at Arsenal seemed all but over after being shipped to Besiktas last year.

However, nothing is impossible in football and it seems that Al-Nenni will be given a proper chance to continue his career at Arsenal after his display against Salah and Liverpool. Arteta himself praised the Egyptian before the game and said that Al-Nenni is “a really positive character to have around the dressing room and has some great qualities as well”.

Surely after the game and especially against an opponent like Liverpool, Arteta will be delighted with how the Egyptian performed despite being away last season in a relatively weaker league like Turkey. Sky Sports echoed the sentiment when it rated the players of both teams. On Al-Nenni it said, “Probably never expected to pull on an Arsenal shirt again after spending a season on loan at Besiktas but produced a neat and tidy display. He used the ball sensibly when he had it and as part of the deep midfield duo, frustrated Liverpool”.

On Salah: “Just could not get involved in the game although it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He had to leave the right flank to try and find opportunities as he tried to make an impact, but Arsenal’s stout defence kept him very quiet.”

Egyptian fans as usual flooded social media with comments about Egypt’s two big stars with Al-Nenni attracting positive feedback on Arsenal’s account and even Arsenal fans from England expressing their shock that Al-Nenni started and starred despite most of them believing he was gone for good after last season’s loan spell on Turkey.

Salah understandably didn’t draw encouraging reaction, and neither did teammate Sadio Mane after missing a couple of breakaways against Arsenal’s keeper Emiliano Martinez which cost his team the win.

Salah managed to score the first penalty kick during the shootout while Al-Nenni didn’t take any of his side’s five successful spot kicks. Only Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster missed his spot to hand the Gunners the win.

The two Egyptians will now have two weeks to get ready for the start of the Premier League with Salah taking on Leeds United at home while Al-Nenni and Arsenal will take on another promoted team in the form of Fulham away from home.

It remains to be seen whether Arteta will be keen to keep Al-Nenni this season or will listen to appealing offers for the Egyptian, but Al-Nenni will surely be eager to stay and cement his place in a team growing massively under Arteta. If the Spaniard decides to keep Al-Nenni, it could be a straightforward competition with Dani Ceballos for a place in the starting 11 since Matteo Guendouzi and Arteta had a public falling out last season that resulted in relegating the French player to train with the reserves with no update taking place this season so far.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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