Egypt's Mohamed Salah (L) and Sengal's Mohamed Diame (R) (Photo: Reuters)
Egypt can hardly afford another stunning failure to reach a tournament they had won a record seven times as they open their African Cup of Nations qualifying campaign after a squad overhaul masterminded by new coach Shawky Gharib.
The ailing Pharaohs face Senegal in Dakar on Friday in their opening game of a tough qualifying group which also includes North African rivals Tunisia and Botswana, with their youngsters and fresh faces eager to repay the faith of Gharib and prove their worth.
Gharib, the man entrusted with turning around their fortunes, knows best.
He has worked with Egypt's youth and U-23 sides and was the assistant of Hassan Shehata during a golden era for the national team, who won three Nations Cups on the trot in 2006, 2008 and 2010 before suffering a dramatic dip in form amid a political upheaval in the turmoil-stricken country.
The cancellation of two successive Premier Leagues and an array of problems plaguing domestic football took their toll on an Egypt side that are also trying to fill the void left by the retirement or loss of form of some veterans.
Gharib injected new blood after playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika and rock-solid defender Wael Gomaa called it a day, with other key players struggling for form and fitness including Ismaily's Hosni Abd-Rabou and Lebanon-based striker Amr Zaki.
Egypt, who missed the last two editions in 2012 and 2013, are aware that finishing as Group G leaders or runners-up won't be a walk in the park.
They are taking heart from a recent exodus of Egyptians players into European football, particularly in Portugal, to make up for an obvious lack of quality in a dour domestic competition not only devoid of spark but also of fans due to lingering security concerns.
Egyptian authorities said they would allow supporters to attend the team's home qualifiers starting with next Wednesday's clash against Tunisia, giving a much-needed boost to the seven-time African champions.
Friday's clash will mark the first time Senegal play a full international at their Leopold Sedar Senghor Stadium since October 2012 when crowd riots led to the cancellation of their Nations Cup qualifier against the Ivory Coast.
African governing body CAF consequently imposed a one-year ban on the stadium.
"It is important to start the qualifiers on our home turf. I want the fans to be a 100 percent behind their team, and push their players to get a winning start to the qualifiers because it is very important in such tournaments," coach Alain Giresse told CAF Online.
"They must show the Egyptians that will get nothing out of here and that's what I am expecting from them."
Egypt's squad includes many players who are just setting their feet on the international stage, with the bulk of the roster coming from Cairo giants Ahly and Zamalek, the traditional heavyweights in Egyptian football.
Egypt have last met Senegal in the 2006 Nations Cup semi-final on home soil, with the hosts claiming a hard-fought 2-1 victory before going on to win the tournament.
Senegal are no longer the powerhouses of the 2000s, having failed to qualify for two of the previous three Nations Cup editions but a similarly stuttering Egypt side who are also known for their stumbles on the road are likely to face a stiff test in Dakar.
But Gharib, who steered Egypt's U-20 side to a remarkable third-place finish at the 2001 World Cup in Argentina, sounded a confident note ahead of the game.
"Senegal are a strong team but we know everything about them. Beating them away from home is not impossible," he said.
Gharib also said Mohamed Salah, who shoulders Egypt's hopes of atoning for a barren run, is fully ready for the game despite lack of playing time at English Premier League side Chelsea.
"His absence from Chelsea's first three matches in the English Premier League does not mean he will not be ready for the game against Senegal," he added.
Egypt will do without Portugal-based defender Rami Rabia, who has recently joined Sporting, and Zamalek left-back Mohamed Abdel-Shafy due to injury. Senegal will also miss two of their key players, with attacking duo Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse ruled out through injury.
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