We have all come to talk about Egypt. As you all know, they’re a dark horse for the World Cup. They probably won’t end up winning it. Did you know that between 1947 and 1952 they were managed by two Englishmen consecutively? That ends our in-depth discussion.
In all seriousness, most of Egypt’s hopes rest predominantly on one player: Mohamed Salah. Without him, they scored no goals in either of their two pre-tournament friendlies, against Colombia and Belgium respectively, conceding three in the process. Their last goal against even a top-150 national side was a stunner out of nowhere from Salah, putting them ahead against Portugal; they managed to lose this game 2-1 after taking their talisman off, and then conceding two in second half injury time.
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The Qualifying Campaign in Review
Firstly, Egypt’s qualification in itself is an incredible achievement for all involved. It’s their first World Cup in nearly 30 years, and only their third of all time. Each of the previous two incidences have gone down in history: in 1934, Egypt became the first African team to play in the World Cup finals, and in 1990, they became the team with the longest-ever gap between two FIFA World Cup matches. Regardless of what happens in this World Cup, Egypt’s supporters, and anyone with the slightest interest in their national game, will be rallying around the team at every opportunity.
In terms of the campaign, Egypt’s major achievement was finishing so far ahead of favourites Ghana in their qualifying group. In fact, even second-placed Uganda finished ahead of them! Egypt managed to make their new home stadium, the Borg El-Arab, a fortress, winning all their three matches played there. In the preliminary stages of the campaign, they overturned a 1-0 deficit to Chad in the first leg with a 4-0 thrashing at home. The last time they failed to win at home was a 1-1 draw against Morocco last August!
The circumstances only heighten the extent of this achievement. Going back to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, in which former President Honsi Mubarak was overthrown, and had to face charges for the premeditated murder of peaceful protesters, Egyptian football has not been in its finest state. To summarise, in February 2012, Al Ahly fans were attacked by militant rival fans, leading to the loss of 74 lives. League football was disrupted, and fans were banned from the stadiums when it returned. It was only the African Club Cup competitions which kept elite sides like Ahly and Zamalek busy. The Egyptian Football Association office was burned down at one point! When conditions weren’t favourable for football, camps were organised in Doha to keep the national team active; friendly matches were played in Sudan and Lebanon. As recently as 2013, The Guardian reported that the national team played with empty stadiums, some of the players didn’t get paid at all, and many team members got stranded at Cairo’s airport by the 7pm curfew. The Egypt national team’s resilience throughout this crisis, and persistence in keeping the national team together, clearly paid off.
Back to the team in its present state, the biggest contributors to Egypt’s historic qualification were Mohamed Salah and manager Héctor Cúper. Salah, ‘The Pharaoh: Joy of 2017 and hope of 2018’ according to Al-Watan, finished joint top-scorer of the African section of the 2018 World Cup qualification, with five goals in just six games during the group stage. This was in a notoriously defensive Egypt side, who managed just eight goals altogether in that period. He tucked away the crucial penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time against winless Congo, confirming Egypt’s qualification. This was the biggest penalty in his life, with delirious celebrations being assembled and substitutes amassing onto the pitch even before it had been taken! These Football Times described his importance as “immeasurable”, adding that “without him, the defensive setup of Cúper becomes a straightjacket, tightening with every well-placed Mohamed Elneny back pass”. He appears to be the only Egyptian player capable of consistently carving out chances on the rare occasions that the team can muster as much as a breakaway. With slightly less inhibitions than his teammates, Salah is allowed to roam wherever the space opens up on those occasions. Imagine Tony Pulis managing Messi.
As for Cúper, his tactics have worked. The ends unequivocally justify the means. Always appearing calm, collected and possibly sterile, the qualification process has taken its toll on the Argentine journeyman; he recently revealed that the stress has been causing him to take hypertension medicine to help lower his blood pressure. As an archetypal pragmatist, Cúper has managed to get Salah to maintain his club form on the national stage, while going to his own eccentric levels in ensuring that the rest of the team make Salah’s goals win games with 101% reliability. Arsène Wenger would probably call him an arsonist. Egypt did not concede more than one goal in a single qualification match, and won all of them in which Salah scored.
Egypt will line up with an incredibly narrow 4-2-3-1. A ‘block’ has never been more apt to describe a set-up. Defensively, they set up not to concede clear-cut chances. With two full-backs in their thirties, defending is an exercise of counting how many balls they can hurl out of their penalty box. Whether 45-year old Essem El-Hadary, or his younger counterpart Mohamed El-Shenawy, is playing, it’s routine for the goalkeeper to come off his goal-line and punch the ball clear. The defence is marshalled by battering ram Ahmed Hegazi, who’s used to basing his game on last-ditch challenges for club and country.
The midfield keeps the defence well protected, with Mohamed Elneny being the main enforcer. The wingers, any two of Salah, Sobhi, Warda and Trézéguet, work hard in defending the wide areas, while trying to sprint forwards whenever a clear counter-attacking opportunity arises. Their wide set-up is so specific that Ahmed Elmohamady struggles to get in the team; he’s not enough of an archetypal defender to play at full-back, and not fast enough to play out wide.
In possession, Egypt like to rest with the ball, so often struggle to create anything dangerous when they do recover it. Besides Salah when he’s playing, forward Marhan Mohsen is often their only outlet in a sufficiently advanced position to help the team alleviate the opposition’s pressure. However, attacking midfielder Abdallah Said also roams into the number 10 position from time to time, and tries to pick out one of the wingers making an underlapping run. In addition, Egypt try to be intimidating from set pieces, with Hegazi and Ali Gabr being the main threats. Of the nine defenders Egypt are taking to the World Cup, six have scored an international goal.
Mohamed Salah is a world-class player who, at a stretch, could feasibly carry Egypt into the knockout stages of the tournament. He’s also a very decent human being, with an up-bringing that provides for a great feel-good story. As the underdogs with only one superstar, who happens to be likeable, it’s tough to imagine any right-minded person routing against Egypt.
As a counter-attacking team, Egypt also have a fair share of pace and flair. The aforementioned Salah would star in any side, and Ramadan Sobhi would probably make the roster of most teams. Furthermore, Amr Warda is of a similar build to Salah, possesses considerable pace, and is likely to be relied upon as a counter-attacking threat for Egypt. If Salah is playing, Egypt are reliable at scoring any chance they happen to create.
Ultimately, any success Egypt may have in this tournament will be primarily dependent on their organisation. Their back line never deviates, has many leaders, and has formed a strong collective understanding. In Egypt’s squad, two goalkeepers and three defenders all play for Al-Ahly. In addition, central defenders Hegazi and Gabr both play for West Browmich Albion, although the latter didn’t make an appearance. Like Burnley in the Premier League, Egypt seem good at inviting their opponents into unthreatening areas and rarely being lured into mistakes, by maintaining their positions so precisely. Against Belgium and Colombia, Egypt managed to block 10 shots in total; Brighton and Burnley are the only top-level teams in Europe blocking as many as five shots per game on average, according to Whoscored. As a result, Belgium, Colombia and Portugal all only created one more clear-cut chance than Egypt in their recent games, according to Sky Sports statistics; that number never amounted to more than two.
In comparison to most of their counterparts, anything and everything. Their attack couldn’t be more reliant on Mohamed Salah, and there are limits to how many waves of attacks their defence can face. For all the success of their strategy during qualification, they conceded more clear-cut chances than they created in a recent friendly against Kuwait, let alone the other three bigger teams.
As good as their defence is at largely standing off their opponents and throwing themselves at the ball, their defenders can be individually erratic in terms of positioning and concentration. Salah had to spare right-back Ahmed Fathi’s blushes when the latter’s inattentiveness almost caused Egypt to miss out on the World Cup, when Congo equalised late on in their match. Fathi also gave the ball away to Yannick Carrasco on the edge of his own penalty area against Belgium, leading to their second goal. Ahmed Hegazi, the West Bromwich Albion defender who has managed to play, has been involved in far too many defensive mix-ups at club level this season to be trusted. Midfield enforcer Elneny plays for Arsenal.
Their striker and goalkeeper situations are also concerning. Mohsen has scored a measly four goals in 25 international appearances, and struggled to lead the line effectively in their recent friendlies. Against Belgium, many of Egypt’s attacks broke down as a direct or indirect result of him standing offside. While Cúper might decide to play Salah there, he has not done so in any of the qualifying matches. After all, the Liverpool man is likely to be more of a threat facing full-backs one-on-one, than being crowded out by defenders, as the isolated sole forward. The other alternative, Kahraba, had fared little better than Mohsen, with three goals in 20 international appearances. As for their goalkeepers, both El-Hadary and El-Shenawy have been tested in recent friendly matches, but neither instil much confidence. The former spilled Hazard’s shot into Lukaku’s path for Belgium’s first goal, while the latter failed to save Cristiano Ronaldo’s powerful header for Portugal’s equalising goal; it was directed straight at him. In addition, neither seem comfortable claiming crosses, while many of their saves look unorthodox and uncomfortable. A reliable goalkeeper is crucial in Egypt’s blockade-esque defensive strategy.
With Braga forward Ahmed Hussein, a.k.a. ‘Kouka’, surprisingly cut out of the final 23-man squad, Mohsen seems almost certain to start up front. Out wide, there is some doubt about Sobhi’s position, with Trézéguet being a strong contender, but the new Huddersfield signing has been preferred for the most recent friendlies. Warda could also start in any of the three attacking midfield positions. In defence, Saad Samir could start ahead of Gabr, and Elmohamady could replace Fathi.
Despite Egypt’s relatively meek group, including Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia, it would be a minor miracle if they qualified from it. A lot would need to change from their recent displays. Even Saudi Arabia give me more confidence, as they faced better teams in qualifying, and seem more reliable in creating chances.
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- World Cup 2018: Rough Guide to Uruguay National Team
- Will England win the 2018 FIFA World Cup? – Football Manager 2018 Simulation
- World Cup 2018: Rough Guide to Croatia National Team
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