Egypt’s hopes of playing in next year’s African Cup of Nations finals are virtually over after they failed to break down South Africa in a goalless draw at Cairo’s Military Academy Stadium on Sunday.
The Pharaohs barely troubled South Africa’s defense in a night to forget to edge very close to the unthinkable prospect of missing out on a tournament they won a record seven times, including the last three editions in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
South Africa, who could have even claimed all three points but were denied by a series of stunning saves from Essam El-Hadary, have all but qualified for next year’s finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
They lie on top of Group G with eight points, two clear of second-placed Niger and three clear of Sierra Leone with two matches remaining.
Egypt, who have yet to register their maiden win, remain at the bottom on just two points and are highly unlikely to finish as one of the best two runners-up in the 11 qualifying groups, even if they beat Niger and Sierra Leone in their remaining two matches.
The defeat could also seal the fate of coach Hassan Shehata, who has led Egypt to unprecedented success on the continental level since he took over at the national team in late 2004.
El-Hadary’s crucial saves
Egypt were lucky not to fall behind in the first half after committing a series of errors at the back. They were also ineffective upfront, failing to unsettle South Africa’s largely untroubled defense.
Lone striker Ahmed Abdel-Zaher was flanked by forwards Mohamed Zidan and Mahmoud Abdel-Razek ‘Shikabala’ but the trio hardly carved out spaces in South Africa’s steadfast backline.
With Shikabala and Zidan often drifting to the centre midfield to begin the build-up play, Abdel-Zaher found himself isolated. Central midfield duo Hosni Abd-Rabou and Ahmed Fathi were peripheral figures, as they neither closed down spaces at the back nor contributed to the tame attacking attempts.
It was South Africa who had the upper hand, thanks to the pace of winger Siphiwe Tshabalala and striker Bernard Parker. The Bafana Bafana would have gone into the break 3-0 up had it not been for El-Hadary’s crucial saves.
The evergreen guardian single handedly kept the score goalless after pulling off a string of impressive saves.
In the 28th minute, a curling Tshabalala corner eluded Egypt’s defenders and found defender Siyabonga Sangweni at the back post but his close-range header was blocked by El-Hadary, who was also alert to thwart a powerful long-range drive from Tshabalala five minutes later.
South Africa’s most dangerous opportunity fell to Parker in the 36th minute. A neatly-worked counter attack saw him superbly skip past Egypt sweeper Hossam Ghaly and break clear but El-Hadary’s timely move out of his goal helped him save his low shot.
Egypt created their first genuine chance just before the half-time whistle when a cross by left-back Sayed Moawad picked out the unmarked Ahmed Elmohamady but the Sunderland wing-back’s low shot from eight yards out was blocked by South Africa guardian Itumeleng Khune.
Egypt coach Hassan Shehata introduced 2012 Nations Cup hero Mohamed Nagy ‘Gedo’ and striker Ahmed Ali, who plays for Saudi Arabia outfit Al-Hilal, but the substitutions were to no avail.
The hosts still lacked the missing link between defense and attack, with midfielders unable to make their presence felt in a disastrous night for the once mighty stars.
Egypt’s efforts were restricted to some shots from defensive midfielder Ahmed Fathi, who had a powerful drive blocked by Khune on the hour mark.
South Africa remained the more dangerous team, threatening to break the deadlock more than once through their breakaway efforts.
Katlego Mphela, who scored South Africa’s winner over Egypt in March, could have done more damage on 62 minutes when he ran onto a defense-splitting pass from Bernard Parker and rounder El-Hadary but a last-ditch interception by central defender Mahmoud Fathallah spared Egypt’s blushes.
Deep in stoppage time, when Egypt poured forward searching for an invaluable winner, substitute Tlou Segolela broke the offside trap but once again El-Hadary rushed out to block his shot.
Egypt tried some useless long balls in the dying seconds as South Africa held firm to secure a share of spoils and break the hearts of the 22,000 Egyptian supporters in the Military Academy Stadium.