The statement from the Egyptian Football Association was reassuring, the pictures from the training ground a little more worrying. Mohamed Salah, the governing body declared, is fit to face Russia on Tuesday. The sight of three teammates assisting him when he put a training top on suggested the shoulder that Sergio Ramos injured in the Uefa Champions League final is not fully healed.
Manager Hector Cuper had resisted the temptation to thrust his talisman back into action against Uruguay on Friday. “We wanted to avoid any risks,” the Argentine said. It was a safety-first approach but the gamble appeared to have backfired when Jose Gimenez headed Uruguay’s winner, minutes after Cuper made his third change, ensuring Salah remained an unused substitute.
Without taking the field, everything has appeared to revolve around him. The photo with the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, something Salah is unlikely to have instigated, was further evidence of his prominence. So, too, the 100kg cake Chechen fans gave him for his 26th birthday. There was recognition from a world-class footballer. “I took Salah’s shirt as a gift for my children, who also see him as a star,” said Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani, who is Paris Saint-Germain’s record scorer.
Factor in a scenario whereby Tuesday’s game is in effect an eliminator for Egypt and a chance for Russia to book their place in the last 16 and Salah’s significance appears still greater. It is perhaps just as well that he is such a laidback character; he seems to specialise in shrugging off pressure.
“I met him two years ago, before the Liverpool move,” said his Egypt colleague Sam Morsy, another who could come into the starting 11 after impressing as a substitute against Uruguay.
“Nothing fazes him: he is extremely calm, extremely relaxed, extremely at ease with himself. When you see that and you add it to ability and work rate, the sky is the limit really because he has got a big, big aura about him.”
That coolness may be required. Egypt are in their first World Cup for 28 years and have never won a game in the competition. Salah has become such a national obsession that more than half a million people signed a petition calling for Ramos to be punished for hurting the winger in Kiev. Salah’s task is to drown out the background noise.
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“He plays with a smile on his face and nothing worries him on the football pitch or gets him down so that is a dangerous, dangerous mentality,” said Morsy. Danger was not confined to his attitude in a season that brought 44 goals for Liverpool and the strike to book Egypt’s spot in Russia.
“I expected him to do really well,” Morsy added. “Did I expect him to score as many goals? It is unbelievable but the way he plays, the runs he makes, his finishing, it doesn’t surprise me.”
If Russia’s challenge is one that confounded many a defence in the Premier League and the Champions League – how to stop Salah – Egypt’s task is to supply him.
“Obviously the temptation is when you have a player as good as Salah is, give him the ball,” Morsy said. “I think the key is getting him the ball in the final third and letting him get on with it, whether it is scoring goals or creating goals. In the [March] international break, against Portugal, we got the ball to him on the edge of the box, one touch, boom, whips it in. You have to slightly adjust when you have a world-class talent on your hands.”
It is the sort of adjustment they will be happy to make. Egypt will expect as their chilled superstar returns.