Mystery match

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 16 Nov 2021

Now that Egypt has qualified for the World Cup playoff, the big question is who will be standing between it and football’s global showpiece,

Egypt vs Gabon
Egypt vs Gabon

Egypt’s 2-2 draw with Angola on Friday 12 November in Luanda ensured that Egypt will finish atop its Group F in the African qualifiers for next year’s World Cup in Qatar.

The tie effectively meant that Egypt’s 2-1 win in its last group game, with Gabon on Tuesday 16 November in Alexandria, was a dead rubber that had no bearing on the standings at the top.

With the full six group games played, Egypt ended with 14 points, seven more than second-place Gabon.

By Monday, Egypt had become the sixth group winners after Mali, Morocco, Senegal, Ghana and DR Congo to secure places in the final two-leg, home and away play-offs next March that will decide which five African teams go to the 2022 World Cup.

Also by Monday, Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon were going to the wire in their respective groups in the fight for the remaining top group places.

Egypt will hope to meet an opponent of a lesser level in the playoff. But keeping fingers crossed is not enough. It basically depends on Egypt’s FIFA ranking at the time of the draw. The higher the ranking the bigger chance that instead of facing a top-five ranked CAF team, the Pharaohs meet up with one of the lower-ranked countries.

Egypt currently is sixth in the CAF rankings.

Consequently, Egypt will want to win as many games as it can before the March playoffs. That ambition starts with the Arab Cup, followed by the Africa Nations Cup.

Egypt will play in Group D of the inaugural FIFA Arab Cup along with Algeria, Lebanon and Sudan. The tournament takes place from 30 November to 18 December.

In January of next year, Egypt is drawn in Group D of the biennial Nations Cup along with Nigeria, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.

Egypt’s new Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz has said the Arab Cup and Africa Nations Cup will be a good opportunity to prepare for the March playoff.

While Queiroz acknowledged the importance of doing well in both tournaments, he said his ultimate task is to qualify for the World Cup.

“Our minds must be on the World Cup during the Arab Cup. We use the opportunity to put new players on the pitch,” he said.

“We also of course need to try to win every single game at the Africa Nations Cup, but it’s important to make everybody understand that my job and my goal is the World Cup.

“I’m happy to shoulder the responsibility of qualifying to the World Cup. It’s the sixth qualifiers for me and it would be a personal achievement for me if I qualify to the World Cup for a fifth time.”

Under Queiroz, Egypt defeated Libya home and away before drawing with Angola. But his streak of no losses was in jeopardy after Angola raced to a 2-0 lead after falling to a goal from Valencia striker Helder Costa in the 25th minute and a penalty from M’Bala Nzola 10 minutes later.

Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s Liverpool superstar, played his best qualifier yet, triggering the comeback with a superb assist, slicing the ball between two defenders onto the advancing Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Al-Nenni who slammed the ball into the far corner to halve the Angolan lead to 2-1 by the interval.

Akram Tawfik of Egypt’s Ahly Club made amends for his trip-up which led to the spot kick by equalising, again from a Salah assist, even though the ball took a wicked deflection before settling into the net.

Queiroz hailed the team’s “fantastic reaction”. “Two things happened in the first half -- the humidity and the hot weather. This cost us a lot of time to adapt to the conditions,” Queiroz told Egyptian TV following the match.

“We started flat to adapt to the humidity and the warm environment. It was difficult for our team.

“Unfortunately we conceded two goals in that period, but the reaction was fantastic. When we started to control the midfield, things changed. We scored two goals and we should have won this game.

“It’s not easy to be losing 2-0 and have this great reaction. Everybody must be proud of the players,” he added.

Both Salah and Queiroz took turns as the centres of attention during parts of the match. The Portuguese became involved in a sideline skirmish after his side had tied the game. The former Real Madrid manager and Manchester United assistant was pushed by an Angolan player as tempers flared and lost his balance for a second.

Salah, who played with more zest than in his previous Egypt’s outings, was approached more than once by several spectators racing onto the pitch during the match seeking selfies with the player these days being called the best in the world.

Egypt will need a great deal of help from Salah if it wants to make a fourth World Cup appearance.

The country was invited to the 1934 tournament in Italy and qualified for the 1990 finals in the same country, as well as the 2018 edition in Russia.

Egypt is the king of African football, having won the Africa Nations Cup a record seven times.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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