Preview: Egypt dreaming big in first World Cup campaign since 1990

Egypt open their first World Cup campaign in 28 years against Uruguay on Friday. The match kicks off at 14:00 Cairo time (12:00 GMT) in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg

Hatem Maher, Thursday 14 Jun 2018,
Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne, center, pursues Egypt's Mohamed Elneny during a friendly soccer match between Belgium and Egypt at the King Baudouin stadium in Brussels, Wednesday, June 6, 2018. (AP)

Egypt are desperate to find the net on their first World Cup appearance since 1990 to silence a former player who continues to brag about the only goal the team scored 28 years ago. On a more serious note, an entire nation is dreaming big in the Russia finals.

Magdi Abdel-Ghani, now an Egyptian Football Association member, has dominated headlines and appeared in numerous television ads over the past few years with his endless talks about how he coolly converted a penalty against then European champions Netherlands in a famous 1-1 draw in Palermo.

With Egypt settling for a bore 0-0 draw against Ireland before losing 1-0 to England to suffer a first-round exit at the 1990 Italy finals, the stage was set for the former midfielder to boast about the solitary goal for years and years.

Mohamed Salah, a national hero, jokingly said he would be keen to score at the Russia finals to silence Abdel-Ghani. He gave Egypt a timely boost by fully recovering from a shoulder injury in time to make the team's squad for the anticipated Group A opener against Uruguay on Friday.

The Liverpool forward was racing against time to be fit for the clash in Yekaterinburg after hurting shoulder ligaments in the Reds' 3-1 defeat by Real Madrid in the European Champions League final on 26 May.

"Mo is doing very well indeed. He's recovered very, very quickly - we've paid a lot of attention to him," veteran coach Hector Cuper told a news conference on Thursday.

"I can almost assure you 100 percent that he will play, save unforeseen circumstances at the very last minute."

Salah's presence would be crucial to an Egypt side that is so dependent on the maverick forward to finish off their breakaways and make a fine start to their World Cup campaign before meeting hosts Russia and Arab Gulf side Saudi Arabia.

The seven-time African champions are aware they need to be at their best to have any chance of keeping at bay the likes of deadly marksmen Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, with Uruguay, who are 31 positions ahead of their opponents in the latest FIFA ranking, firm favourites to claim all three points.

Worrying form

Egypt's pre-World Cup form has been worrying to a big extent. They could not win any of their five friendly games, at times struggling to carve out openings even against less illustrious teams.

There were positive signs in their first friendly in March though, with a Mohamed Salah goal giving them a surprise lead against Portugal, but the European champions roared back with two stoppage-time goals from Cristiano Ronaldo to turn the match on its head and secure a 2-1 win.

Egypt were lackluster in the subsequent warm-ups, losing to Greece 1-0, salvaging a late 1-1 draw at Kuwait, holding Colombia to a 0-0 draw before suffering a 3-0 defeat by a vibrant Belgium side.

But Cuper, who is credited for rebuilding an ailing side, is adamant his side would do better at the World Cup, playing down the significance of any unfavorable results in friendly matches.

The Argentinean is criticised by many fans and pundits for what they believe his overly-cautious approach. He said he understood the concerns of the supporters but also implied he could not take any risks and end up conceding easily.

“For three years and a few months we've decided on a certain path... We've achieved a lot by following that path, so with very little time before the World Cup it would be risky to change things substantially in our style," Cuper said.

"I don't like to practise at the World Cup with things we haven't done before. Sometimes, you have to perfect and fine-tune the things that you do well."

Although Egypt have become largely solid at the back, their central defensive duo are still finding it difficult to deal with the numerous crosses that are sent to their area in every single game, with the full backs barely closing down spaces down the flanks.

This will be particularly worrying against Uruguay, who arguably boast the deadliest strike force among the 32 teams at the World Cup.

“Perhaps we still need to work a bit more on defence,” Cuper admitted.

World Cup frenzy has engulfed Egypt in the past week. Television ads, billboards, newspaper articles and social media posts have aroused high passions in the football-mad country.

A draw for Egypt against Uruguay would be deemed an excellent result, but a win would be historic.

"Some people are saying that we will go there, play three matches and return home. But I believe we can make a great achievement," Mo Salah said last month.

"People are pessimistic; they keep saying we should be realistic. But I do not agree, I believe we can do greater things."

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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