Speculation is always a risky business in sports, but going out on a limb, Egypt should be able to at least tie with Sudan in their Group D in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) football tournament being played in Cameroon, allowing the Pharaohs to move to the round of 16.
The game, the third and final in the group match, was being played on Wednesday 19 January after Al-Ahram Weekly went to press.
After two games, Nigeria had the lead with six perfect points from two wins while Egypt was in second with three points. Sudan and Guinea-Bissau had one point apiece.
An appearance in the round of 16 in the continent’s flagship football championship would be an achievement in itself for many fledgling countries but for Egypt it would be just the beginning. The country has a record seven titles, three in a row at one time, another record.
But if Egypt were to get to the second round, it will have to play much better than it did in the first round.
In its 1-0 loss against Nigeria in the opener, Nigeria’s interim manager Augustin Eguavoen revealed after the game how he had won. He had realised that Egypt’s sole attacking option was to give the ball to its Liverpool star Mohamed Salah and hope that he would do the rest.
That complex strategy deployed by Egypt was easily neutralised. Nigeria either double-teamed Salah when he got the ball or prevented him from receiving it.
End of problem.
Kelechi Iheanacho scored the lone goal in the 30th minute with a tremendous half-volley on the turn.
Salah did have two good scoring chances but one was right at goalkeeper Maduka Okoye while the second was mishit awkwardly by the player often described these days as the world’s best.
Salah made amends by scoring the only goal against Guinea-Bissau in game two, squeezing the ball in with 21 minutes left.
Guinea-Bissau looked to have equalised when Mama Balde let fly with a curling stunner but which was ruled out after a video assistant referee review. Apparently, Balde had fouled Omar Kamal after stripping the Egyptian defender of the ball.
Egypt struck the woodwork three times in a match they largely dominated but should consider itself lucky to come away with a win. The Balde foul was one of those iffy challenges that could easily have been waved off by another referee.
Once again, should Egypt advance but at the same time continue its underwhelming performances, it will find much difficulty winning crown No 8. Arguably its best defender Akram Tawfik will miss the rest of the tournament, and probably the remainder of the season, following an ACL tear.
Portuguese coach Carlos Quieroz did not take to Cameroon big name midfielders Magdi Afsha and Tarek Hamed, to the astonishment of pundits and the Facebook crowd alike. The crew on hand is a decidedly mixed bag of fairly decent players who look and play disjointedly. Midfielder Mohamed Al-Nenni does not for the full 90 minutes always look like he plays for Arsenal while local Zamalek dynamo Zizo is not always able to get his teammates into scoring positions, sometimes because they are unwilling for fear of counterattacks.
The testing and experiments that Quieroz, who arrived in Egypt in September last year, has conducted have not yet created the kind of winning formula any country striving for a major sports championship must have.
Some AFCON countries have what Egypt does not. At the time of writing, hosts Cameroon looks like strong champion candidates. Nigeria and Morocco have the pedigree to go all the way.
On the other side, defending champions Algeria are in a deep hole, with just one point, and facing two-time AFCON champion Cote d’Ivoire, on only four points itself, on Thursday 20 January. Equatorial Guinea surprisingly beat the North Africans 1-0, ending their 35-match unbeaten run.
Starting the round of 16, with eight teams taking an early shower, the remaining countries will be tougher and their ambitions higher. In vying for the biggest soccer prize in Africa, everybody will have to step up their game.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.