Fiery face-offs

Alaa Abdel-Ghani
Tuesday 5 Oct 2021

Egypt and Libya are playing a critical double-header that could help determine who goes to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani

 What started out as a walk in the park is now more like an uphill battle in unchartered territory.

Egypt hosts Libya in Alexandria tomorrow, Friday 8 October, at the start of two highly anticipated, highly charged football encounters that could go a long way to deciding who will qualify for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

After two games in Group F of the African qualifiers, Libya leads the way with six points, followed by Egypt with four. Gabon has one point and Angola zero.

Egypt is scheduled to face Libya a second time on 11 October in Benghazi.

There are still four games left for each team, and only the group winner will advance to a two-match final playoff for one of Africa’s five places in Qatar.

That top team was supposed to have been Egypt, considering its three opponents were not expected to present much of a challenge.

But surprise outfit Libya has turned the group on its head. It remains to be seen whether Libya will continue to defy the odds or whether Egypt will upend the upstarts and return the group to some semblance of normality.

To realise that second objective, late last month, Egypt brought in Portuguese tactician Carlos Queiroz as its new coach, replacing Egypt’s Hossam Al-Badri. Al-Badri’s team beat Angola 1-0 at home and drew away with Gabon 1-1, not a terribly bad record. But the swift and unexpected rise of Libya, coupled with a public outcry over the poor level of quality shown by Egypt in its first two games, persuaded the Egyptian association that the team needed to be fixed, and fast.

Queiroz, 68, is no stranger in international football. Perhaps best known as Alex Ferguson’s right-hand man at Manchester United, Queiroz also coached Real Madrid and took Iran to two successive World Cups. His students have included Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham.

Queiroz will need all his experience and football acumen to get past Libya. He arrived on the scene very late, apparently not knowing any of the players save some who play abroad. He has seen the team in action just once, against Liberia in a friendly last week, won 2-0 by Egypt.

But he has taken at least one dramatic decision, dropping two big names from the squad, striker Mohamed Sherif and midfielder Mohamed Afsha. Sherif was the Egyptian league’s top scorer last season with 21 goals, and scored a brace against Liberia, while Afsha pulls the strings for his club Ahly.

On Monday, Queiroz declined to comment on the exclusions, saying only that Egypt was “very lucky to have such a remarkable generation of players in every area of the pitch”.

While their axing was apparently due to lack of match fitness and might have wrangled some, their departure, even if temporary, showed that Queiroz is courageous enough not to be swayed by reputations, but by present form.

Indeed, Queiroz does not appear to like living in the past. “Egypt have a big history but history on its own is not enough. We have to build a strong team,” the former Portugal boss said upon his arrival in Egypt.

If history is the yardstick by which success is measured, then Egypt should be able to handle Libya. Libya has never qualified for a World Cup; Egypt has gone to three. Libya has never been crowned champions of Africa; Egypt has a record seven such titles.

However, head to head, Libya holds its own. Libya defeated Egypt 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier in 2004. In the 2007 Pan Arab Games, the teams drew 0-0. Egypt eventually claimed the gold medal on goal difference from the Libyans.

Most worrying for Egypt: It only managed to beat the Libyans on its own turf once.

On Friday, Libya will go into the game at full strength, led by a manager of note in his own right, Javier Clemente, who coached Spain in two World Cups and Euro 1996.

It’s a wonder that Libya has come this far in the group or that a game is being played in Libya at all. Off the field it has been a battlefield. Shortly after the 2011 Arab Spring, major anti-government demonstrations rocked Libya’s social fabric, and subsequent unrest and an insurgency effectively finished off the country, leading to devastating civil wars.

Libya is typically less successful in international competition compared to other North African teams. Ironically, though, since 2010, Libya’s global ranking has improved due to the increasing number of Libyan players playing in foreign leagues.

At the same time, Egypt’s national team has been heading south. It finished second from bottom in the 2018 World Cup, losing its three group matches. A year later, it was shown the door in the round of 16 in the Africa Nations Cup that it hosted.

So while it was said that the teams Egypt is facing in the 2022 qualifiers would be easy pickings, in truth Egypt’s team is not the feared force it once was on the continent.

But Egypt remains decent in football, 48th in the world as opposed to Libya’s 110.

Egypt also has a most lethal weapon: Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah who left four defenders in the dirt on his way to one of the Premier League’s greatest goals this season against Manchester City on Sunday. After that 2-2 draw, the latest in a string of splendid football being played by Salah who has nine goals in seven games this season and is the owner of two Premier League golden boots, the chorus in England and abroad that he should now take home the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best became pronouncedly higher.

Egypt’s full squad:

Goalkeepers: Mohamed Al-Shennawi (Ahly SC), Mohamed Abou-Gabal (Zamalek SC), Mohamed Bassam (Tala’a Al-Gaish), Mohamed Sobhi (Pharco FC).

Defenders: Ahmed Fetouh, Mahmoud Al-Wensh (Zamalek SC), Ayman Ashraf, Akram Tawfik, Yasser Ibrahim (Ahly SC), Ahmed Fathi (Pyramids FC), Baher Al-Mohamadi (Ismaili SC), Ahmed Hegazi (Ittihad Jeddah).

Midfielders: Hamdi Fathi, Amr Al-Sulya (Ahly SC), Tarek Hamed, Ahmed Sayed Zizo (Zamalek SC), Abdullah Al-Said, Ramadan Sobhi, Ibrahim Adel (Pyramids FC), Mohamed Al-Neni (Arsenal), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Omar Marmoush (Stuttgart).

Forwards: Ahmed Hassan ‘Kouka’ (Konyaspor), Mustafa Mohamed (Galatasaray).


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