Pressure on Egypt and Mohamed Salah with great expectations for African Cup of Nations
Tournament hosts will be expected to be triumphant by home fans in the competition they are hosting in June and July
Mohamed Salah and host Egypt will face Zimbabwe in the opening match of the 24-nation African Cup of Nations on June 21 in Cairo, the start of a campaign that, if successful, could land them a record eighth title.
Egypt reached the final two years ago in Gabon, but lost 2-1 to Cameroon. It was the first time they had qualified for the tournament since they won the last of their seven titles in 2010.
They became hosts for the fifth time in the event's history when Cameroon lost the right because of poor preparations and security concerns.
The competition will feature 24 teams for the first time and played in six venues in four cities: Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia.
The tournament has traditionally been held at the start of the year, but it has shifted to June and July this time - the European off-season - to prevent the disruption inflicted on Europe's club football when a large brigade of African players leave their clubs in mid-season to play in the continental championship.
The tournament was originally scheduled to begin on June 15 but was put back by nearly a week to allow Muslim players to recover from the dawn-to-dusk fast of the holy month of Ramadan, which starts this year in early May.
This year's event will also feature first-time qualifiers in Mauritania, Madagascar and Burundi.
The teams that finish first and second from the six, four-nation groups will automatically qualify for the round of 16 along with four of the best third-place finishers. The final will be played on July 19.
Home fans will be expecting the Pharaohs to win the continental tournament to compensate for their disappointing run in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where they crashed out after losing all their three group matches.
That could amount to a great deal of pressure on the squad, although history may be on their side given they have triumphed three of the past four occasions the tournament was played on home soil.
But it will not be easy. In fact, nothing is easy now in African football.
"The pressure will be tremendous. It would have been easier on the players if the tournament had stayed in Cameroon," said Kareem Ramzy, a prominent football analyst and the host of a popular television sports show.
"But it's tough for this team to win it. When people speak of this squad, only Salah's name stands out. No one else instantly comes to mind."
Carrying the squad on his shoulders is nothing new to the 26-year-old forward.
He almost single-handedly ensured Egypt's qualification to the World Cup for the first time since 1990 in 2017.
He also finished his first season with Liverpool, 2017-2018, as the Premier league's best player and top scorer.
He has scored fewer goals so far this season - 17 in total - but remains instrumental in Liverpool's bid to win the league for the first time since 1990.
Fortunately for the Egyptians, fellow group teams Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo will hardly surprise them since they faced both teams in the 2018 World Cup qualifying group matches.
They lost to Uganda away, but beat them at home, while triumphing over the Republic of Congo in both encounters.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Egypt should cruise to the round of 16, but it's likely to be less easy for some of the other six seeded teams.
The draw, held Friday night in front of the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids just west of Cairo, gave Senegal and Liverpool striker Sadio Mane tough rivals in an Algeria spearheaded by Manchester City's Riyad Mehrez in a Group C that also includes East African lightweights Kenya and Tanzania.
Defending champion Cameroon and powerhouse Ghana are in Group F with Benin and Guinea-Bissau. But it's Group D that's arguably the hardest with Morocco, Ivory Coast and South Africa drawn together with Namibia.
"It is not like before when the gap was huge between A list teams and the rest," said Ramzy, warning against taking the seeding system for granted. "The gap has to a large extent been bridged."
Updated: April 14, 2019 07:56 AM