Mohamed Salah produced a virtuoso display to notch a hat-trick and put Egypt on the brink of a place in the World Cup qualifying final round following a 4-2 victory over Zimbabwe in Harare on Sunday.
The Basel winger, who helped his club win the Swiss league title last week, restored a two-goal cushion for Egypt in the dying minutes, thwarting spirited attempts from the hosts to at least salvage a draw in an electrifying atmosphere at the National Stadium.
Veteran playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika gave Egypt an early lead but Zimbabwe's Knowledge Musona, who shrugged off an injury in time to feature in the game, restored parity midway through the first half.
Salah scored the first of his three goals few minutes before the break to restore Egypt's advantage.
He was also on target in the 77th minute following a brilliant individual effort; extending the visitors' lead and marking the start of some frantic minutes that saw Zambia narrow the gap with eight minutes remaining, thanks to a goal from Billiat Khama.
But shortly after, Salah ensured Egypt would not endure some nerve-wracking minutes when he completed his hat-trick after slotting home with aplomb following a neat move involving Abou-Treika.
The Pharaohs, who collected maximum 12 points from four games, are on top of Group G. They will qualify for the final playoff with two matches to spare if second-placed Guinea, who have have four points, fail to overcome Mozambique (two points) later on Sunday.
The 10 group winners will advance to a two-legged playoffs that will determine Africa's five representatives at next year's World Cup finals in Brazil.
No recognized striker
The injury of forward Mohamed Nagy 'Gedo' left Egypt with a shortage of options upfront and prompted coach Bob Bradley to rely on a three-pronged attack featuring deep-lying forwards Abou-Treika, Salah and Zamalek's Ahmed Eid.
Abou-Treika's precise passes unsettled a shaky Zimbabwean backline which relied on an inefficient offside trap and Salah's bursting runs kept them on their toes throughout the exciting affair.
Both combined to give Egypt the lead after six minutes. Salah ran down the right after running onto a deft through pass and fed Abou-Treika, whose first-timer from inside the area went past Zimbabwe keeper Washington Arubi.
Musona, who scored Zimbabwe's only goal in a 2-1 defeat by Egypt in March, leveled the score on 21 minutes after making the most of a dreadful defensive blunder. A tame long ball eluded Egypt's central defender Mahmoud Fathallah and found him to dink the ball over keeper Sherif Ekramy and into the net.
Individual mistakes at the back continued to haunt Egypt but they were helped by Salah's mesmerizing efforts at the other end that led to a second goal four minutes before the interval.
The 20-year-old superbly controlled another precise pass with his head before placing a low shot under Arubi's body and into the net from close range.
His second goal stood out.
In the 77th minute, he gave Egypt a 3-1 lead when he sped onto a trademark neat pass from Abou-Treika, skipped past his marker twice en route to the area before finding the corner of the net with the outside of his left foot.
Zimbabwe were given a lifeline eight minutes from time when Khama headed home after a cross evaded a mis-timed jump by Fiorentina's central defender Ahmed Hegazy.
However, Salah killed off Zimbabwe's hopes two minutes later when swept home after being picked up by an Abou-Treika centre.
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