No Salah and no point for Egypt in defeat to Uruguay at World Cup
Late goal form Jose Gimenez gives South Americans a 1-0 triumph as Salah is an unused substitute in the Group A clash
There were nine minutes remaining when it was confirmed that Mohamed Salah would spend his 26th birthday as a spectator.
It seemed not to matter. His teammates looked resilient without their talisman. Egypt were set for a stalemate that would rank alongside the 1990 draws with the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland as their best result in a World Cup.
There were just two minutes to go when leaving Salah an unused substitute appeared an error.
Carlos Sanchez delivered a free kick from the right flank, the previously excellent Ahmed Hegazi lost Jose Gimenez and the Atletico Madrid defender headed in the only goal.
For the first time since 1970, Uruguay had won their World Cup opener: undeservedly, given the mediocrity of their performance, but importantly.
It may leave Egypt requiring to beat Russia on Tuesday if they are to progress. Salah will surely return. Without him, Egypt’s comeback to the World Cup after a 10,221-day absence had a cruel conclusion.
It appeared testament to the organisational prowess of manager Hector Cuper. They were on course for a clean sheet, a deep, compact defence negotiating much of the match with few alarms.
Yet Uruguay – and Edinson Cavani in particular – were indefatigable. As Egypt tired, he grew stronger. He drew a flying save from Mohamed El Shenawy with a fine volley.
He rattled the post with a free kick. He was not directly involved in the goal, but it nevertheless felt a consequence of his unstinting efforts.
And in the process, he drew a comparison with his strike partner. Sharp and seemingly potent, Cavani was everything Luis Suarez was not. Uruguay’s record scorer looked a rusty imitation of his usual irrepressible self except in histrionic attempt to get Hegazi sent off in added time.
Before then, Suarez tucked a shot into the side-netting, bobbling it wide in strangely profligate fashion. He was denied by El Shenawy, with a point-blank block, when Cavani released him.
The goalkeeper fell on the ball when, after Cavani was again the supplier, Suarez made an unconvincing attempt to dribble past him.
They were moments of vindication for Cuper, who had preferred El Shenawy to Essam El Hadary, the 45-year-old who is still waiting to become the World Cup’s oldest player.
Other, competing, narratives revolved around Liverpool’s past and present, around Suarez and Salah.
Cuper had said the winger was fit but omitted him, 20 days after he injured shoulder ligaments in the Champions League final.
The Egyptian fans nevertheless brandished banners featuring his image. Sights of Salah on the big screen were greeted with roars.
Egypt’s attacking threat was limited without him. Tame efforts from Trezeguet and Marwan Mohsen presented little threat. A stinging shot from right-back Ahmed Fathy drew the only difficult save Fernando Muslera had to make.
But, until the end, drama was in short supply. Uruguay’s 4-4-2 felt predictable, their midfield shorn of invention. Cavani apart, only Diego Godin, striding forward purposefully from defence, appeared to possess the class required.
But the 71-year-old manager Oscar Tabarez made a difference with his substitutions. Rather than Godin, it was his centre-back partner Gimenez who applied the finish.
The watching Salah shook his head in disappointment. His incision will be essential against the hosts. Egypt will require more than just defensive determination then.
Updated: June 15, 2018 06:27 PM