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Preview: Egypt dream big in another shot at elusive World Cup appearance

Hatem Maher , Saturday 8 Oct 2016
Egypt
Egypt's national player Mahmoud Trezeguet (2R) celebrates with the teammates after scoring a goal in their friendly football match against Guinea at the Borg El-Arab stadium near Alexandria on August 30, 2016 (AFP)
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Egypt hope they will bring to an end their 26-year-old World Cup hoodoo and make up for recent near-misses as they open their group qualifying campaign on Sunday, pinning their hopes on a veteran Argentinean boss to turn around their fortunes.

The Pharaohs, who lost in two playoffs to Algeria and Ghana in 2009 and 2013 respectively, are desperate to go one step further and book a place at the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, having been absent from the football's most prestigious showpiece since 1990.

Hector Cuper, who also experienced near-misses during his reign in charge of Valencia when the Spanish side lost two successive UEFA Champions League finals to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich more than 15 years ago, is confident Egypt can win an opening Group E clash on the road when they face Congo in Brazzaville on Sunday.

"We will play only to win in Congo and to take an early lead of our group," Cuper said, adding that he did not really care about the surprise 0-0 draw between Egypt's main challengers Ghana and minnows Uganda on Friday.

The 60-year-old's first task at the helm ended successfully, with Egypt qualifying for the African Cup of Nations for the first time since 2010 after topping a three-team group featuring Nigeria and Tanzania following Chad's sudden withdrawal.

Chad gave Egypt a stunning scare in the preliminary World Cup qualifier when they claimed a 1-0 home win in the first leg but the seven-time African champions made amends in the return leg with a comprehensive 4-0 victory in November last year.

Cuper's focus since his arrival has been tightening what used to be a porous defence, relying on the pace of AS Roma winger Mohamed Salah and the deft passes of Ahly playmaker Abdallah El-Said to hit his opponents on the break.

The team have been largely convincing in this aspect under his guidance, apart from two recent friendly games that rang alarm bells before the vital World Cup qualifier at Congo.

Egypt were held to a 1-1 home draw by Guinea in Alexandria before losing 1-0 to South Africa in Soweto, appearing shaky at the back and toothless upfront. Cuper is not concerned, sticking to the traditional notion that friendlies are only used for experiments.

Optimistic

"I'm optimistic regarding my team's chances in the World Cup qualifiers," Cuper told a news conference previewing the Congo match.

"Optimism doesn't mean that I'm 100 percent sure we are going to play at the World Cup, but I'm confident that the players will give their all to achieve this target.

"Congo's clash is very important. The opening games are always important. A victory will enhance our confidence," he added.

Egypt have a reputation of dropping points against modest opponents, which proved costly several times in the World Cup qualifiers.

Their youthful side lack vast international experience, with the exception of 43-year-old keeper Essam El-Hadary and 31-year-old right back Ahmed Fathi, but can still count on Salah and Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny to shine on the big stage.

Cuper is likely to field a three-man midfield behind two attacking midfielders and a lone striker, with Zamalek's Bassem Morsi, who is enjoying a fine run, expected to fill the latter position.

"I told my players that they will face a world-class player who plays at a very high speed. We know his capabilities and we are working on that issue," Congo coach Pierre Lechantre said of Mohamed Salah.

"Salah is one of the best players in Europe, but we will not concentrate only on him.

"We watched Egypt's games against Tanzania and South Africa and they are not the same team that seemed the best in Africa 10 years ago," the Frenchman added.

Egypt host Ghana in the following qualifier in November, with Congo facing Uganda.

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