Early eight

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 7 Dec 2021

Even though one game remains, Egypt nevertheless reached the quarter-finals of the FIFA Arab Cup


Egypt and Algeria must play in the third and final group stage game in the FIFA Arab Cup being held in Qatar. But they needn’t bother.

The two countries already progressed to the quarter-finals of the 16-team tournament after playing only two games in their Group D.

With Lebanon and Sudan already out the door, the only thing left to determine is whether Egypt will finish the group in first or second place.
So, while the Egypt-Algeria match is moot on paper, it will decide who tops the group (Al-Ahram Weekly went to press before the Tuesday 7 December meeting).

Before the game, Egypt and Algeria had carbon copy records: six points from two wins and an identical plus six goal difference. Egypt defeated Lebanon 1-0, then smashed Sudan 5-0. Algeria’s progression was the reverse, a thumping of Sudan 4-0, followed by a more modest blanking of Lebanon 2-0.

Whoever finishes atop Group D will meet the second-place finisher of Group C, and whoever ends up in second in the former plays the best in the latter.
As of writing, Morocco had already sewn up Group C, with Jordan a possible second and Saudi Arabia and Palestine with an outside chance of advancing.
Egypt would naturally like to end up first in its group to avoid a showdown with a stronger Moroccan side, at least according to FIFA rankings.
Whether first or second, Egypt’s quarter-final match will be Saturday 11 December.

Before that encounter, it will be Egypt vs Algeria, North African rivals to the bitter end, one of the fiercest historical matchups on the continent and in the Arab world. The clash may not make all that much of a difference, and both will be playing without their European-based superstars, including Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez of Algeria, because the Arab Cup does not coincide with FIFA’s normal international break schedule, meaning their clubs are not obliged to release them. Still, raw Arab pride is at stake.

Also, just as this tournament is being used by Qatar as a test run for the World Cup which the Gulf state will be hosting in less than a year’s time, so too, some countries like Egypt are trying to make optimum use of the event as a drill for next month’s Africa Cup of Nations plus the final two-game African playoff for the World Cup to be held in March.

Let’s not forget the prize money awaiting the winner of this inaugural FIFA Arab Cup. The winner gets a cool $5 million while a not bad $3 million goes to the runner-up.

Against Lebanon and Sudan, Egypt’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz employed a host of players as he tries to find a permanent starting XI. Because he landed in Egypt just two months ago, Queiroz can be excused for constantly juggling his lineup by injecting fresh faces and putting some players in unfamiliar positions, all for the purpose of discovering the right balance. In the process, he has unearthed some rough diamonds: the previously overlooked Stuttgart striker Omar Marmoush, and national team newcomer Ahmed Refaat who opened the scoring against Sudan after only four minutes with a postcard volley worthy of the FIFA Puskás Award for best goal of the year. Refaat, whose initial shot rattled the crossbar, plays for Future FC, a newly-promoted Egyptian Premier League club, and could himself become Egypt’s future if he can hit one like that again but against a stronger team in a more important game.

Debutant Hussein Faisal, a 22-year-old winger from the Alexandrian club Smouha, showed some nifty footwork, again against Sudan, and was singled out by Quiroz for special praise as a star in the works.

Quiroz should also be applauded for casting his fishing-for-talent net beyond the confines of Egypt’s perennial powerhouse clubs Ahly and Zamalek. He has also been unafraid to bench some of the country’s locally popular players, especially from these two clubs, when they have not performed up to par.
But sooner or later Quiroz will be forced into making some tough decisions. The Arab Cup will be entering a more difficult stage and the ACN and World Cup playoffs are on the horizon. The clock is ticking and won’t stop for anyone, and that includes Quiroz.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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