During a dismal campaign to qualify for the 2015 African Nations Cup, Egypt were outclassed in two matches against Tunisia. Less than three years later, the Pharaohs look much stronger going into another duel with their North African rivals.
Egypt open their 2019 Nations Cup qualifying campaign away to Tunisia on Sunday in what could be a vital game in the race to finish on top of Group J, which also includes minnows Swaziland and Niger.
Tunisia and Egypt are expected to battle it out for the top spot, which earns direct qualification for the Cameroon finals. The best three runners-up in the 12 groups will also go through.
Egypt were largely porous the last time they met Tunisia in a competitive game, throwing away their lead to lose 2-1 away from home in November 2014 and miss out on a Nations Cup place for the third time running.
They also lost to the Carthage Eagles 1-0 at home in the same campaign but look in a much better shape this time around as they aim to build on a surprising run to the Nations Cup final earlier this year.
Despite losing 2-1 to Cameroon in the final, Egypt were still praised by pundits back home, with Argentinean coach Hector Cuper given much credit for turning around their fortunes after years of underachievement.
The former Valencia and Inter Milan boss, known for his tactical nous, put extra emphasis on tightening Egypt’s rearguard and the outcome was a solid side that leak a few goals, albeit without any entertaining play.
Egypt are deadly in breakaways and Tunisia will be aware of that threat when they meet them at Rades Stadium.
“Egypt is one of the best teams in Africa. They missed out on three straight Nations Cups but they came back stronger, boosted by discipline, experience and the work of Hector Cuper,” Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul said in an interview with Ahram Online.
“They are not just about individual skills but also a structured attacking and defensive unit. However, their key players are still Mohamed Salah, Ramadan Sobhi and Mahmoud Trezeguet.”
Cuper had the upper hand the only time he met Tunisia, with Egypt claiming a late 1-0 friendly victory in January, a few days before the Nations Cup got underway.
But the 61-year-old refused to get carried away, warning his side against being complacent.
“We do not have the feeling that we are better than any team in our group. In any football game, teams are on equal terms even if, for instance, we have a better history than our opponents,” Cuper told a news conference previewing the Tunisia clash.
“What I can guarantee that we will do our best. Our opponents have some excellent players and they can beat us. I can never guarantee or promise a certain result.”
Cuper still has an attacking dilemma to solve, with Egypt still lacking a reliable natural striker. Amr Gamal is the only out-and-out frontman in the team’s roster but he has recently struggled for first-team football at Egyptian champions Ahly.
Midfield workhorse Mahmoud Trezeguet is out due to injury, with Stoke City's Ramadan Sobhi expected to replace him on the left wing.
It also remains unclear whether Cuper will start veteran 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, Ahly’s Sherif Ekramy or Zamalek’s Ahmed El-Shennawi.
Hadary earned wide acclaim with some age-defying displays at the Nations Cup despite not being selected as a first-choice keeper, having replaced El-Shennawi in the opening game against Mali after the latter was injured.
Tunisia will also have to deal with a number of injuries that hit their key defenders, with Ali Yacoubi, Oussama Haddadi, Hamdi Nagguez and Valencia’s Aymen Abdennour all ruled out of the game.
Regular goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi will also miss the match through injury.
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