Once more, Mohamed Salah dominated the build-up.
The Egyptian forward’s short-term future has been the subject of continued debate since he collided with Sergio Ramos and crashed to the Kiev turf almost four weeks ago. A shoulder problem threw his World Cup in jeopardy, threw a spanner in Egypt’s preparations. It threw a football-obsessed country into panic.
The injury kept Salah out of Friday’s initial World Cup clash with Uruguay, Egypt’s marquee man named on the bench but remaining an unused substitute. Without him, his side conceded in the final minute to lose their Group A opener 1-0.
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But then came the good news on Monday: Salah looks certain to play his part in Egypt’s second assignment against Russia the following day. He will probably even start in Saint Petersburg. It could, finally, be the ending to the saga his colleagues and his countrymen crave.
“Salah is fit,” manager Hector Cup told a media conference before taking his team for their final training session pre-Russia. “In the previous match against Uruguay, we thought he was fit also, but we always carry out a last physical test before we decide the line-up and today we will have an important test to see how he does.
“I hope he will be fully fit to play. I sure he will be able to play. He’s an essential piece in our team.”
Isn’t he just? Salah is not merely Egypt’s talisman, but he was their top scorer through qualifying, helping his tally climb to 33 goals in 57 international appearances. Before his injury, he struck 44 times in his debut season with Liverpool.
Against Russia, Salah’s ability to affect the most important matches, so evident in the match against Congo last October that sealed Egypt’s spot in Russia, will no doubt be required once more.
Having routed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the tournament curtain-raiser last Thursday, the World Cup hosts know victory would almost guarantee progression to the World Cup’s last 16. Egypt understand a win for them feels necessary, too. So, then, does Salah’s participation.
“Salah is one of the best in the world,” Cuper said. “He’s in the top 10 today. For me, there’s no shadow of a doubt. It’s an honour and a privilege to coach him. Because on top of being talented, he’s humble, he’s a team player. And that for me is extremely important nowadays.
“Whether he’s an important player for us, no one can deny that. The fact that we can count on him - I’m not saying he’s a guarantee - but he’s definitely an important offensive weapon.
“When we don’t have him we feel his absence and we need to come up with alternatives. Hopefully tomorrow he’ll be up to play. I’m optimistic he will be able to play.”
Cuper defended criticism that his philosophy is too cautious - he has taken one recognised striker to Russia - declaring he has “no room for regrets”. Although Egypt have not won in seven matches, scoring only three goals, the Argentine confirmed they will play for the win on Tuesday.
Yet Salah’s shadow still hung over the conference. Later, he looked in some discomfort when jogging around the Saint Peterburg Stadium. Sitting alongside Cuper in the conference, veteran goalkeeper Essam El Hadary was asked if the constant speculation surrounding Salah had represented an unnecessary distraction.
“We are 23 players, remember that,” El Hadary said. “And we are very happy that Mo Salah is with us and has recovered. We are all ready, and all of us hope that he will participate. Mr Cuper and the technical team will decide if he will participate.
“All of us - the players, the staff - are very ready to face Russia tomorrow. And hopefully we will get the three points. Because all our players believe it would be our launching pad into the second round.”