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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

Rampant Russia too strong for Egypt as 2018 World Cup knockout stage beckons

Return of Mohamed Salah proved not enough for the African side, who are on the brink of elimination

Egypt's Mohamed Salah makes his way off the pitch as two Russia players celebrate at full time. Dylan Martinez / Reuters
Egypt's Mohamed Salah makes his way off the pitch as two Russia players celebrate at full time. Dylan Martinez / Reuters

It was all over inside three second-half minutes.

Already 1-0 up, Russia scored a second and in an instant had a third. Ruing captain Ahmed Fathi’s own goal, Egypt reeled from the hosts’ quick-fire double.

Russia were three goals to the good at a vociferous Saint Petersburg Stadium. With little more than an hour gone, their place in the last 16 for the first time in the post-Soviet era was almost sealed.

Egypt, with Mohamed Salah back and busting to stamp his mark on football’s big stage, were almost out. The Liverpool forward eventually got a goal, when VAR intervened and he dispatched the subsequent penalty, but it all felt too late. Beaten by Uruguay on Friday, Egypt had 17 minutes to somehow claw their way back the match. Back into the tournament.

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More from 2018 World Cup:

World Cup 2018: Day 6 as it happened - All the scores and news from Russia

Richard Jolly: Senegal topple toothless Poland as underdogs seize control of Group H

Saudi Arabia determined to prove against Uruguay they belong at the World Cup

John McAuley from Russia: Saudi Arabia v Uruguay talking points

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Yet it wasn’t to be. That despite cries for another spot-kick, that despite the sensation that it was too steep a mountain to climb. For now, Russia feel on top of it, perched proudly as the 2018 World Cup's sole side with six points, leading the way on their own turf.

The crowd waved their flags and chanted their country’s name. Stanislav Cherchesov, the Russia manager, demanded more as he departed. Egypt must look for Saudi Arabia, thumped by the Russians in the opener, to do them a favour against Uruguay on Wednesday. That, or else a first World Cup in 28 years will end like the one that went before it: with a group-stage exit.

It is lamentable that Salah’s tournament could be reduced to just two matches. Elevated this past season to among the very best footballers on the planet, he carried the hopes of his country on his shoulders. On his one good shoulder.

As expected, he returned against Russia. Largely on the periphery during a hard-fought first half yet always carrying that air of menace, he sparked into life as the interval approached. Salah exchanged a neat couple of passes with striker Marwan Mohsen around the centre of the pitch. He injected into proceedings a sudden, Salah burst of pace.

Then he accepted Mohsen’s dummy on the edge of the Russia area, swivelled and curled a left-footed shot around Yuri Zhirkov, but around the Russia post, too.

Long before that, Russia had begun brightly. The noise deafening, the hosts pressured the ball and pressed forward. On six minutes, Aleksandr Golovin, Salah’s counterpart in that he bears his team’s hopes, stole possession and shot wide.

Later, Mahmoud Trezeguet and Denis Cheryshev both fired narrowly off target. Cheryshev, the home side’s hero in the opening rout of Saudi Arabia, was seeking a third goal in two matches.

Russia didn’t need a Russian to score their sixth of the tournament, though. Two minutes into the second half, Egypt goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy elected to punch Golovin’s cross when he should have caught, Roman Zobnin scuffed his shot and Fathi sliced into his own net. It was the second own goal of the day, the fifth of the tournament in all. It is not even one week old.

The Egypt bench claimed Fathi has been knocked off balance as he attempted to clear by Russia striker Artem Dzyuba, but the goal stood. The home side were a step closer to progression. Staring at a second defeat in five days, Egypt seemed a considerable distance away.

Right around the hour mark, it practically slipped from view. Brazil-born full-back Mario Fernandes got to the Egypt byline, pulled back to Cheryshev, who slipped it under El Shenawy to finally add to his Saudi double.

Three minutes later, Dzyuba nestled a shot beyond El Shenawy. And that was that, the night and possibly the knockouts, beyond Egypt.

They did pull one back, when Salah was fouled inside the area and when the referee thought he was outside it. But VAR corrected the error, Salah kissed the ball and fired high past Igor Ikinfeev in the Russia goal.

But it was not enough. Those three manic minutes had really done it, done Egypt. Salah hung his head at the final whistle, while Russia held theirs high.