(L-R) Egypt’s Mohamed Abdel-Shafy, Tarek Hamed, Essam El-Hadary, Mohamed Salah, Saleh Gomaa, Ahmed Fathy, Mohamed Elneny, Hassan Ahmed, Ramadan Sobhi, Ahmed Hegazi, Mohamed Abdel-Shafy pose for a team picture during their World Cup 2018 Africa qualifying match between Egypt and Congo at the Borg el-Arab stadium in Alexandria on October 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mohamed El-Shahed
Egypt may have one of the best players in the world in Mohamed Salah but do not let that fool you, this is a team always set up very defensively under Héctor Cúper. In his first 32 games as Egypt manager, the Argentinian conceded a measly 18 goals. By mid-May he had yet to lose a game by more than one goal.
His defensive mindset is instilled into the squad and in his 4-2-3-1 starting line up with the two holding midfielders, Mohamed Elneny and Tarek Hamed, expected to be holding deep-lying positions.
Meanwhile, the veteran goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, who is expected to start in goal, is not concerned by his age. “I am 45 years old and I can’t argue about that, but for me, this is just a number on a paper.”
In front of him, the defence will be made up of Mohamed Abdel-Shafy (or Karim Hafez if he recovers from injury) at left-back with the two West Bromwich Albion defenders Ali Gabr and Ahmed Hegazi at centre-back and the ever so versatile Ahmed Fathi at right-back.
One of Egypt’s main weaknesses, which must be addressed before the World Cup starts is the baffling manner in which Egypt concede goals. Thirteen of the 18 goals conceded under Cúper have come from direct crosses into the box, which seems remarkable for a side whose defensive partnership of Hegazi and Gabr has an average height of 1.95m and that is so often praised for its defensive acumen.
Going forward Cúper prefers playing with three attacking midfielders and one player up front. Mahmoud Hassan “Trezeguet”, Abdullah El-Said and Mohamed Salah will make up that triumvirate with Trezeguet hoping to emulate his club form at Kasimpasa at the World Cup, saying: “I hope to be able to reproduce the performances I have had here [in Turkey] at the World Cup. I want to help the national team as much as I can.”
On the right hand side Egypt, understandably, will rely heavily on Salah, who offers the pace, strength and goals that Egypt so desperately need. The Liverpool winger will need to focus on the football again after an image rights dispute with the Egyptian FA unnerved him towards the end of the club season.
El-Said will pull the strings in central midfield while the player up front will be Ahmed Hassan “Koka”. His is a rather thankless task. The Braga striker has to close down the opponents defence, chase whatever long balls the defenders hoof up towards him while also trying to hold up play when in position of the ball so that he can either turn to shoot or, more likely, feed one of the attacking midfielders.
Egypt may struggle to score many goals but, on the other hand, teams will find it hard to break them down. In recent friendlies defeats against Portugal and Greece the Pharaohs were tested against stronger opposition for the first time and although they lost, the scorelines of 2-1 and 1-0 showed that they have the grit and determination to test even the best side.
Probable line-up (4-2-3-1)
Abdel-Shafy, Gabr, Hegazi, Fathi
Salah, El-Said, Trezeguet
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Kasimpasa’s Mahmoud Hassan ‘Trezeguet’, who is named after David Trezeguet for his slight resemblance to the French striker, has really impressed in his first season in Turkey, on loan from Anderlecht. The winger had, by mid-May, amassed an impressive 13 goals and 6 assists in his first season so far, and could be the one that steps up to make people realise that Egypt is not just Mohamed Salah.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
Mohamed Elneny’s form had been picking up towards the second half of the season and his excellent performances for Arsenal earned him a long-term contract extension in March but then he suffered an ankle injury. He will be back in time for the World Cup but he may lack match fitness.
What is the realistic aim for Egypt at the World Cup and why?
Egyptian fans will be hoping that Mohamed Salah’s scintillating performances this season can inspire the rest of a rather lacklustre team to make it out of the group stages. The perception in Egypt is that the Pharaohs have the ability to reach the last 16 and anything less would be a disappointment. “Uruguay are the best team but after that we can all fight for second place and if someone thinks otherwise, I will be ready to listen to their arguments in my office,” Cúper said recently.