Cruel ending to Egypt’s fairytale start

Egypt’s return to the World Cup after a 28-year absence was marred with disappointment, not living up to the fairy tale it could so easily have been.

All the talk prior to kick off was about whether or not Mohamed Salah was going to be fit enough to start after his shoulder injury in the Champions League final. A day before the match Egypt manager Hector Cuper said that Salah would “100% play” in the game, however, this was not the case.

Another surprise shock was the inclusion of Mohamed El-Shenawy into the starting line up, having only previously featured 4 times for Egypt. The veteran 45-year-old keeper Essam El-Hadary was tipped to start and become the oldest player in World Cup history, but this was not the case.

The match itself was played on what seemed to be a special day. It was Mohamed Salah’s 26th birthday, the first day of Eid and a Friday, which are both holy days in Egypt and for 89 minutes it looked like it would be a special day indeed. Egyptians dominated the Yekaterinburg Arena, making up for about 70% of the attendance.

Egypt started the game pressing high up the pitch and closing down the Uruguayan defenders, which to Egyptian fans was a huge shock as for the first time under Hector Cuper Egypt had not sat back deep into their own half. However, 20 minutes into the game Uruguay started to really put pressure on Egypt forcing the Pharaohs to sit deeper into their half, where they then played for most of the match.

On the 23rd minute, Cavani had Uruguay’s first real chance of the game, a powerful volley that was headed away by Aly Gabr. Just minutes later Suarez missed an absolute sitter from yards out, which half the stadium thought he had converted after hitting the side netting.

One highlight of the game was in the 26th minute, when every single fan, Egyptians and Uruguayans, got up off their feet to sing happy birthday to Mohamed Salah, a moment that symbolised what the World Cup is really about.

Just after the second half restarted Suarez had another excellent chance to put Uruguay ahead. After beating the Egyptian defence he was one-on-one with the El-Shenawy, but he managed to steal the ball excellently from Suarez’s feet without bringing him down.

Throughout the match Egypt played more positively than usual, getting the ball and trying to attack, however they kept trying to play the ball down the wing, which kept getting thwarted and had to resort to shots from distance or tight angles.

It wasn’t until much later in the game that Egypt start playing through the middle and posed a threat. However, their flaw was the lack of cohesion and decision making between the players in the final third as they just couldn’t create any decent chances from their good build-up play.

Egypt’s hopes were dashed in the 89th minute after a free kick won by the corner flag was headed in by Atletico Madrid’s Jose Gimenez, who managed to jump over three Egyptians to head home, beating Mohamed Elshenawy who had an otherwise excellent game.

The goal highlighted yet another issue for Egypt with 15 of the 21 goals conceded under Hector Cuper coming from crossed balls into the box. It is even more worrying when you consider the defensive partnership of Aly Gabr and Ahmed Hegazi has an average height of 1.97m.

For me what stood out was Hector Cuper’s decision to play a zonal defensive marking system. It was discouraging to see as the ball was headed by Jimenez that there were three Egyptian players not marking anyone in their zonal system, so it could have been a completely different story had the players been instructed to mark man-to-man.

It’s difficult to know what would have happened had Salah come on, but it was clear Cuper wanted to rest him for the two more important win-able games for Egypt. He played mind games with not just the fans but also Uruguay by saying a day before that he would play.

Even though Uruguay didn’t perform that well, for the Egyptians this performance showed that the side is able to compete at a high level and it was a positive sign for the coming must-win games against Russia and Saudi Arabia.

It was good to see a slightly more positive attacking performance from Egypt, who have been heavily criticised by Cuper for being too defensive. If Egypt increase their attacking threat in the next games and with Mohamed Salah back, I don’t see why they don’t have a chance of progressing through to the next round of the World Cup.

Players who impressed

Egypt’s inexperienced goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy, who was starting just his fourth match for Egypt, had a superb game and was awarded the man of the match for his spectacular goalkeeping. He denied Suarez and Cavani on a number of occasions and timed his tackle excellently when Suarez was one-on-one with him.

Amr Warda was the outsider to start on the wing, and he also impressed by making excellent runs and passes. It seemed that once he came off it allowed the Uruguayan wing-backs to push forward as his threat had gone.

Lastly, Ahmed Fathi was excellent at right-back, making a number of important tackles and was one of the three stand out performers in the Egypt side.

Interestingly, my top three picks were ranked 7th, 8th and 9th, in the total player leaderboard.

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