Russia v Egypt: Salah poised to derail hosts' juggernaut
African nations have suffered a bruising opening to the 2018 World Cup and Egypt are set to turn to the continent's finest player in a bid to bring about a change of fortunes against hosts Russia in Group A.
Nigeria's 2-0 loss to Croatia on Saturday meant the CAF representatives had played three, lost three, failed to score and all conceded from set-piece situations.
Jose Gimenez's 89th-minute winner for Uruguay against Egypt was watched from the sidelines by Mohamed Salah, who remained in cold storage on the bench despite pre-match claims from veteran boss Hector Cuper that the Liverpool superstar was "almost 100 per cent" fit following his shoulder injury.
The Egyptian Football Federation (EFA) laid that decision solely at Cuper's door, maintaining the 26-year-old was fit to face Uruguay but deemed not ready for the risk.
Denis Cheryshev capped a brace in Russia's opening 5-0 rout of Saudi Arabia with a superb stoppage-time finish but the Spanish-raised midfielder knows all about an esteemed tactician who he expects to make life difficult for his team-mates.
"Saudi Arabia is in the past, we must move on," Cheryshev told FIFA TV. "Egypt are very strong, they've got a good coach in Hector Cuper.
"Whether Mo Salah plays or not, it's going to be a difficult game for us anyway. If he's not there, does that mean our task becomes easy? Not at all.
"If he plays, it will be hard but more interesting. He's one of the best and you always want to compete with the best and win."
It is Russia who will be without a star man this time around, with Alan Dzagoev continuing his rehabilitation from a hamstring strain suffered against Saudi Arabia back in Moscow, as his colleagues chase a victory that would see them progress from the group stage for the first time since the Soviet Union era.
Egypt count right-back Ahmed Fathi as a minor doubt with muscular tightness, while team manager Ihab Leheta is keen to present a united front.
"Our culture as Egyptians means that all our hearts beat as one, and that is what we feel," he said. "Our enthusiasm and determination is increasing all the time and we thank all the Egyptian fans for their support."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Russia – Aleksandr Golovin
CSKA Moscow have reportedly slapped a €25million price tag on the head of opening-day hero Golovin. The 22-year-old was Russia's creative inspiration and crowned a stellar display by dispatching a sumptuous free-kick. Dzagoev's absence means more of the same is required.
Egypt – Mohamed Salah
How could it be anyone else? Despite the subsequent handwringing, Cuper's decision not to play his talisman against Uruguay – Egypt's least-winnable game – was the percentage call in the circumstances. EFA declarations over Salah's fitness are one thing, but whether his stellar 44-goal form from Liverpool this season can be rediscovered is the major source of intrigue.
KEY OPTA STATS
- Egypt have never beaten European opposition at the World Cup, drawing two and losing two of their four games.
- They have also failed to score in each of their last three World Cup matches, last finding the net in the competition against Netherlands at Italia 90.
- Aleksandr Golovin has already been involved in three goals in this World Cup (one goal, two assists). Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the only player to have been involved in more goals for Russia in a single tournament was Oleg Salenko in 1994 (6 goals, 1 assist).
- Russia’s 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia was the second biggest by a host nation in their opening match at a World Cup tournament, after Italy beating USA 7-1 in 1934.