WORLD CUP: Egypt's hopes rest on Mohamed Salah's recovery
CAIRO (AP) — Mohamed Salah has the ability to light up any team, particularly Egypt.
The Liverpool striker has been in superb form this season, but playing at the World Cup will be a new experience for him — if he fully recovers from a shoulder injury.
Egypt qualified for the tournament for the first time in 28 years, and its chances in Group A against host Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay mainly rest on the 25-year-old Salah.
Salah was injured in the Champions League final against Real Madrid last month and his absence was obvious in Egypt's three final warmups: Draws with modest Kuwait and Colombia, and a 3-0 loss to Belgium.
"It's difficult to find anyone who can replace Salah," coach Hector Cuper said. "But we have a substitute plan, because the team cannot depend on just one player."
The loss to Belgium may have been somewhat deceptive, with the Egyptians taking their game up a notch or two during brief spells in the second half, featuring bursts of energy and a touch of passing flair. But the squad's chronic shortcomings were on display for most of the match. Too often they gave the ball away, unable to capitalize on the handful of chances they had and committed defensive errors that allowed Belgium to score two of its three goals.
A seven-time African champion qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, Egypt takes on host Russia on June 19 and plays its final Group A match on June 25 against Saudi Arabia.
Here's a closer look at the Egypt team:
Cuper took over in 2015 after a dismal run under former United States coach Bob Bradley. The Argentine inherited a seven-time African champion that had failed to qualify for the last three continental championships.
Not only did Cuper lead the team to the 2017 African Cup of Nations, but they reached the final before losing to Cameroon. The World Cup exile then ended with a game to spare in qualifying.
The accomplishments halted media criticism of Cuper's tactics and turned him into a national hero. So much so that football federation officials are hoping Cuper reverses plans to leave the job after the World Cup.
However, doubts persist over whether Cuper has done enough to improve a squad that is notorious for losing the ball, squandering chances in front of goal and aerial weaknesses.
At 45, Essam el-Hadary could become the oldest player to compete at a World Cup. Russia may be his last stop in an illustrious career spanning three decades and that took him to clubs in Switzerland, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, where he plays for Al-Taawoun.
Despite his vast international experience, El-Hadary must guard against some of the lapses of concentration and poor decision-making that surfaced in recent years.
Ahmed el-Shennawy was El-Hadary's backup before being ruled out of the World Cup with a left knee injury. That leaves Al-Ahly goalkeeper Mohammed el-Shennawy, who is no relation, as the replacement.
Ahmed Hegazy has been growing in confidence and the West Bromwich Albion center-back is Cuper's obvious choice in that position. Playing alongside him will likely be Ali Jabr, Ahmed Fathi and Mohamed Abdel-Shafi. Egypt's defenders proved their worth against Colombia, when they gallantly endured wave after wave of attacks by the South Americans. However, lapses of concentration and wrong judgment calls allowed the Belgians to punish them with three goals that could have possibly been denied. It will be intriguing to see how they try and stop Uruguay's attacking duo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
There is good news here with Arsenal's Mohamed Elneny's return from an ankle injury sustained in a Premier League game to put in a commanding performance in the Belgium match. Salah's former teammate in Basel, Switzerland, Elneny will be joined in the midfield by Tarek Hamed. Both will play behind playmaker Abdalla Said, who positions himself closer to the forward trio.
With 44 goals to his name this season in all competitions, there can be no real substitute for Salah if he is not fit to play against Uruguay. Not one from among the squad's other forwards comes anywhere near the marksmanship, speed and agility of Egypt's talisman.
In Salah's absence, Cuper will most likely field a forward trio of Marwan Mohsen in the middle with Mahmoud Hassan, better known by his nickname Trezeguet, and Amr Warda on the flanks. Stoke City's Ramadan Sobhy has shown himself to be ineffective on the left wing in warmup games.
Egypt, which didn't advance past the opening round in its previous World Cup appearances in 1934 and 1990, will open against Uruguay on June 15. The team based in Grozny will then take on Russia on June 19 and Saudi Arabia on June 25.
Goalkeepers: Sherif Ekramy (Al Ahly), Essam el-Hadary (Al Taawoun), Mohamed el-Shennawy (Al Ahly)
Defenders: Mohamed Abdel-Shafi (Al Fateh), Ayman Ashraf (Al Ahly), Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa), Ahmed Fathi (Al Ahly), Omar Gaber (Los Angeles FC), Ali Gabr (Zamalek), Mahmoud Hamdy (Zamalek), Ahmed Hegazy (West Bromwich Albion), Saad Samir (Al Ahly)
Midfielders: Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), Abdallah El Said (Al Ahly Jeddah), Tarek Hamed (Zamalek), Mahmoud Kahraba (Al Ittihad Jeddah), Sam Morsy (Wigan Athletic), Shikabala (Al Raed), Ramadan Sobhy (Stoke City), Mahmoud Hassan (Kasimpasa), Amr Warda (Atromitos)
Forwards: Marwan Mohsen (Al Ahly), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)