Egypt, making its third appearance in the World Cup and first since 1990, has never survived the first round. This tournament, though sets up well for them to get through to the knockout stage — as long as their luck of the draw extends to a healthy return for their injured hero.
Mohamed Salah scored five times in the final round of qualifying to push his team past the incumbent Ghana and simultaneously led the English Premier League with 32 goals for Liverpool. He is recovering from a shoulder injury caused by a Sergio Ramos foul in the Champions League final last month, but Coach Hector Cup said Thursday he is “almost 100 percent” to play Friday in his team’s opening match against Uruguay. That would only bolster his legend in Egypt, where a write-in campaign pushed him to a second-place finish in recent national elections.
Egypt can be thankful for its placement in Group A. The Pharaohs are competing in the weakest group in the tournament alongside Saudi Arabia, host nation Russia and Uruguay. Saudi Arabia is the lowest-ranked team in the field, 63rd in the world, by the Elo rating, which is considered a more effective predictive measure of teams’ strength than the more widely cited FIFA world ranking. Russia is in the middle of the generational transition and in its poorest form in years. It is ranked 45th in the world, worst among European nations. Uruguay is the clear favorite to win the group and is being labeled a dark horse, but it is one of the weaker group favorites.
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Salah is coming off a historic club season, but history has not been kind to the top scorers in the Premier League. The six previous EPL goal-scoring champions have a combined five goals in that summer’s World Cup. None have taken their team past the round of 16.
Coincidentally, the (relative) best of those performances were by Liverpool players. Michael Owen, after an 18-goal season for the Reds, scored two goals in the 1998 World Cup and helped England advance to the round of 16. In 2014, Luis Suarez was coming off a season every bit as sensational as Salah’s. He scored two goals for Uruguay before it lost to Colombia, 2-0, in the first knockout round.
Suarez scored 31 goals that season with an expected goals tally of approximately 15, according to SBNation, while Salah scored his 32 goals with 25.1 expected goals according to Understat. Suarez was arguably more lethal than Salah, and Uruguay, ranked 10th in the world by FIFA, was a stronger side than Egypt; still, the team and Suarez underperformed. This year for Egypt, however, the expectations are not nearly as grand. Fans would gladly take two goals from Salah and a trip to the knockout round.
Salah is not alone on the Pharaohs. There is a respectable defense behind him that allowed four goals in their six final-round qualifying matches, led by Ahmed Hegazi from West Brom and goalkeeper Essam El-Hadard, who at 45 is set to become the oldest player to compete in a World Cup. On offense, Salah has fellow winger Mahmoud Trezeguet, who scored 13 goals for Kasimpasa in the Turkish league this past season.
But on the whole, Egypt is not a dominant side, and Cuper will have the team sit deep to defend and look to find Salah and Trezeguet in the space behind their opponents. Cuper is banking on a stout defense and a few moments of brilliance on offense to advance.
The second group game, against Russia, will likely decide who goes through. Russia will figure to be on its front foot against Egypt to impress the home crowd, allowing the space that Salah is so eager to exploit. As with so many games that appear close on paper, the match will likely come down to a few key plays, perhaps brilliant, perhaps in error. Should Salah provide the former, it could lift Egypt to new World Cup heights.
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