Preview: Nations Cup beginnings matter as Egypt aim to restore lost pride

Hatem Maher , Monday 16 Jan 2017,
Egypt's Abdallah El Said celebrates after he scores a goal against Ghana. (Reuters)

Egypt’s wounds from repeated failures to reach a tournament they had won a record seven times are just about to heal but they still want to signal their intent to dominate Africa again as they begin their Nations Cup campaign on Tuesday.

The once mighty Pharaohs, who are out to restore lost pride after reaching the Nations Cup for the first time since lifting the coveted trophy in Angola in 2010, face Mali in Group D, bearing in mind that an opening win will pave the way for a smooth qualification for the last eight.

“This is my first AFCON, as most of the [Egypt] players. Difficulty lies in lack of experience," Egypt coach Hector Cuper told a news conference in Gabon, having taken charge of an African side for the first time in a career that saw him reach the European Champions League twice with Valencia in 2000 and 2001.

"I can make many other excuses like heat and humidity but our only target is to win the eighth title ... we will fight for that. Fans expect a great success and I asked my players to challenge any difficulty and prove their worth to the whole world."

As well as two Champions League final losses to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, Cuper also fell at the last hurdle while at Italy’s Inter Milan, missing out on the Serie A title on the last day of the season.

Such near-misses are unlikely to have any bearing on an assured tactician whose defensive-minded tactics drew some criticism but proved effective in Egypt’s Nations Cup qualifying run, which saw them pip heavyweights Nigeria to top their group.

With Egypt long suffering from a porous defence, Cuper set about tackling problems at the back, closing down spaces and relying on an efficient counter-attacking strategy, thanks to the astute passes of Ahly playmaker Abdallah El-Said and the marauding runs of AS Roma winger Mohamed Salah upfront.

Cuper often deflected criticism over what some pundits believe his over-reliance on Salah, saying it’s only natural that he makes the most of his best players.

His cautiousness bore fruit, with Egypt conceding only one goal in four qualifying matches.

World Cup opponents

Although Egypt are making their first Nations Cup appearance in seven years, many fans prioritize the World Cup over the African biennial tournament.

Some believe Egypt can treat the Nations Cup as an ideal preparation for their World Cup qualification after they made a perfect start by beating Congo and Ghana in their opening two matches.

That notion was strengthened when Egypt, whose last World Cup participation was in 1990, were drawn with Ghana and Uganda in their Nations Cup group - the same opponents in the race to qualify for the world’s most prestigious showpiece.

But before thinking about Ghana and Uganda, Egypt must first overcome a stern test against Mali, who reached the semis twice in the last five years.

“At first, I wasn't happy that we would meet the same opponents [Ghana and Uganda] of the Word Cup qualifiers but later I saw this as a positive point,” Cuper said.

“I only think about the Mali game now. I want to win it before I start thinking about the following matches.”

The Argentinean boss should face no difficulty picking his ideal starting line-up, although two positions give him some food for thought.

There is a fierce competition between veteran goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary and Zamalek’s Ahmed El-Shennawi after Sherif Ekramy was ruled out of the match due to a minor injury.

Should the 44-year-old Hadary start between the sticks, he will become the oldest player in the Nations Cup history, beating a record set by former teammate Hossam Hassan, who was 39 years when he took part in the 2006 edition in Egypt.

There are also questions over whether Cuper would deploy an out-and-out striker or depend on Saudi-based winger Mahmoud Kahraba as his solitary frontman.

In Egypt’s only Nations Cup warm-up, Ahly striker Marwan Mohsen struck near the end to give the team a 1-0 victory, staking his claim for a regular spot after some recent fine displays in the domestic league.

The other striker at Cuper’s disposal is Ahmed Kouka, who plays for Sporting Braga in Portugal.

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


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