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Egypt on the ropes
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 06 - 2018

Egypt had no choice but to shake the Russian empire if they had any hope of going to the second round of the 2018 World Cup but it was Russia that did the damage following a clinical 3-1 victory.
As of writing before Saudi Arabia play Uruguay, Russia had six points after two games and Egypt nothing. Before Al-Ahram Weekly goes to press, Russia will not technically be through, nor Egypt out, but the chances of Russia missing out on round 16 and Egypt going through, while mathematically possible, are highly improbable.
In Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday night, in the first game of round two, it looked like Russia was headed for the same 5-0 drubbing they administered against Saudi Arabia, scoring three in the second half following plenty of half-chances in the first. There was only one shot on target in that half, by Russia.
The game was very much in the balance starting the second half but disaster struck Egypt in the 47th minute. Aleksandr Golovin's cross was punched clear by Mohamed Al-Shennawi but only as far as Roman Zobnin. The Russian took a terrible shot, which was definitely off target. Ahmed Fathi did technically succeed in keeping the ball away from Artem Dzyuba but also succeeded in turning the ball past his own keeper from a long 12 yards out.
Then came two quick-fire goals by the rampant hosts. In the 59th minute Denis Cheryshev, Russia's new hero, slammed home from 12 yards out, his third of the championship.
Just three minutes later, Artem Dzyuba — you need to take a train to get around him — got around Ali Gabr and placed the ball in the bottom right corner of the net to seal the deal.
Mohamed Salah, being used for the first time in this World Cup, gave Egypt some hope by blasting a penalty through after VAR overturned a decision from a free kick to a spot kick. But that would be all Egypt would write.
Coming back from a shoulder injury, Salah looked a shadow of the player we know. A fully fit Salah in a Liverpool jersey and the result might have been different. But against Russia in Egypt's colours, he looked tentative and concerned that the physical Russians would target him. Even so, even if he was 75 per cent fit, it was a gamble Egypt had to take. Salah had his moments. Every time he got near the ball, the two nations would rise but for different reasons.
But as good as Salah is, one man doesn't make a team. Egypt have no forward in this World Cup save for Marawan Mohsen and he's not a good one at that. Egypt's coach Hector Cuper discovered a bold approach to fixing his forward line: Get rid of it altogether. He would use his midfielders instead up front but they were toothless against Uruguay and Russia, failing to make the most of repeated counter-attacks, or something that looked like counter-attacks. Who do the midfielders give the ball to if most of the players are in back of them? The players want to be behind the ball, not in front of it. Their lack of vision and creativity in the final third was glaring.
Before the match, Egyptians had tried to convince themselves that it was not Russia that played so well against Saudi Arabia but it was Saudi Arabia that played so badly. They believed Saudi Arabia made Russia, the lowest ranked team in the 32-nation World Cup, and which could not win any one of their seven friendlies in the build-up to the tournament, seem much better than what they really are. The firm belief was that Egypt would not be half as bad as Saudi Arabia, and that if the Saudi-Russia game was played 10 times, a lopsided score like that could never be repeated.
It wasn't, but that is small consolation for Egypt.
Egypt's loss meant that only one African country, Senegal, won a game in the first round, 2-1 against Poland. Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria all went by the wayside, not to mention Saudi Arabia's complete collapse against Russia in the opener.
And as devastating as it was, Fathi should not be overly distraught. It was this World Cup's fifth own goal, probably not worse than the goal Morocco put in themselves against Iran in the 95th minute for a 1-0 defeat.
In the Egypt-Uruguay encounter, it was obvious Cuper was looking for a draw in his attempt to secure a place in the round of 16, but his frontline, as against Russia, failed to make a solitary threat, especially with the absence of Salah.
In the first half the teams were content to marshal their defences, too timid to move up the field. In one of Uruguay's rare attacks, Luis Suarez scoffed an easy six-yard effort that hit the side netting.
It was only in the second half did the tempo pick up as Uruguay realised they had better shift to second gear if they wanted the three points to level with Russia. But as Uruguay began to penetrate deep into Egyptian territory, Egypt's defenders held their ground, and the times when the ball eluded them, Al-Shennawi, with only three friendlies under his belt, was the problem fixer. He perfectly timed Suarez's close-range shot, cutting off the angle so much that the Barcelona hit man could only shoot at his knee. Later Al-Shennawi snatched the ball as Suarez came bearing down on a partial breakaway (it's small wonder Suarez, aka Dracula, didn't sink his teeth into Al-Shennawi out of frustration like in three previous cannibal incidents). And Al-Shennawi magnificently parried Edinson Cavani's half volley headed for the top left corner, for a picture-perfect save, one of the best of the tournament thus far and which earned him the game's MVP.
It looked the worst was over for Egypt and that it had weathered the storm when Cavani struck the inside of the post with a brilliant free-kick and the clock ticking.
But with one minute to go, Uruguay were eventually rewarded for their strong finish as José Maria Giminez jumped highest in the box to power a headed corner home.
It was déjà vu for Egypt. Against Portugal, in an earlier friendly, Cristiano Ronaldo scored the game winner from the exact same corner, the exact same header, the same spot and just about the exact same time. Egypt's twin towers central defenders Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr are the height of trees — and like trees, they don't move. Against Ronaldo, they should have learnt to keep their eyes on the ball more than the men they are marking. They did not change their ways in the redo.
It was devastation for Egypt but delirium for the entire Uruguayan squad who rushed onto the field to celebrate, including their coach Óscar Tabárez who suffers from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare, degenerative disease which causes muscular weaknesses in the limbs and forces him to use crutches and an electric wheelchair. But on Friday, a miracle had happened. Tabárez could walk again.


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