Captain: Essam El Hadary
Manager: Hector Cuper
Nickname: The Pharaohs
FIFA Rank: 46
How they qualified: Winners of African Group E (round three) ahead of Uganda
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
One to watch: Mahmoud Hassan “Trézéguet” (Kasımpaşa, on loan from Anderlecht)
Happy to sit back and defend, Egypt are difficult to break down. Only once (in 30 games) have the Pharaohs conceded more than one goal under Hector Cúper. But despite taking Egypt to the Afcon final and a 63% win rate, the Argentinian has been criticised for his defensive style. Egypt’s squad are a mixture of youth and experience, with the goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary set to become the oldest player at a World Cup at 45. In front of him Egypt have the solid defensive partnership of Rami Rabia and West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi. The midfield is built around Mohamed Elneny and Al Ahly’s Abdallah Said, who at 32 will bring a creative spark. Egypt hope Mohamed Salah’s fine form continues and he can be fully fit and on the other wing can choose from Ramadan Sobhi, Kahraba and Mahmoud Hassan “Trézéguet”, one to watch for his direct runs into the box.
Egypt capitalised as Ghana lost their way, first under Avram Grant and then under Kwesi Appiah, to establish a five-point lead over the Black Stars after their first two matches.
They weren’t made to pay for a shock defeat away in Kampala against Uganda in August, as Ghana failed to beat Congo-Brazzaville at home, and then took a major step toward the finals when Mohamed Salah settled the return clash in Alexandria.
The Liverpool superstar was again the hero in their penultimate group game against Congo, when he stepped up to convert a 94th-minute penalty after Arnold Bouka Moutou had cancelled out his 63rd-minute opener. It was a nerveless finish by the “Egyptian Messi” that took Egypt to their first World Cup since 1990 and prompted scenes of jubilation across the North African nation.
There aren’t too many players in world football today who are in better form than Salah, as the forward’s stock has been transformed since returning to the Premier League with Liverpool this season. If he is fully fit after a shoulder injury, with the solid defence anything is possible.
Egypt’s group stage opponents are likely to struggle to silence Salah, while his momentum could help the Pharaohs topple a heavyweight or two as the tournament progresses.
Beyond Salah, Egypt are limited and you can expect accusations of the Pharaohs being a one-man team to persist throughout the summer. If the Liverpool man is neutralised by opponents, they can lack a Plan B while, too often, Cuper’s conservative approach means that the team can struggle to shift gears. If things don’t go their way early in matches, or if they fall behind, the Pharaohs are in danger of running out of ideas. Mohamed Elneny’s injury concerns also threaten to deny them a forceful personality and a valuable midfield presence.
All eyes will be on Salah this summer, and unsurprisingly so. There haven’t been many African players in history who could match his output and contribution in the Premier League this term, and a strong tournament may see him end Africa’s wait for a second Ballon d’Or winner. Of course, Egypt don’t attack teams in the same way as Liverpool, but the responsibility of playing for his nation can bring the best out of Salah, too — as he demonstrated by topping Africa’s scoring charts during qualification. However, an injury to Salah in the Champions league final cast major doubt over Egypts World Cup campaign, early signs are he will only miss the opener but its a less than ideal situation for Salah and the Pharaohs.
Egypt will be delighted with their group stage draw, and even if they begin their campaign with a tough assignment against Uruguay, it shouldn’t be too long before they get their first World Cup win. Russia and Saudi Arabia are the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament, and while the former will be keen to leverage their home advantage, it’s hard to see how either will have an answer to Salah. If the forward can summon up the inspiration that has accompanied him through his campaign with Liverpool, then Egypt could trouble either Portugal or Spain in the round of 16, but progress beyond that would represent a remarkable achievement. It all remains to be seen as the fitness doubt over the injury of Salah is assessed.