Against bullish Russia, Egypt's World Cup hopes hang on Salah's shoulder
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Desperate for a win after their last-gasp defeat to Uruguay, the Pharaohs of Egypt take on Russia Tuesday evening with their talismanic forward, Mohamed Salah, making his début after missing the fateful meeting with La Celeste last Friday.
The Liverpool star is struggling to recover from the shoulder injury that cast a pall over last month's Champions League final and had threatened to deprive the World Cup of – arguably – its most exciting player.
Salah, who scored 44 goals in a sensational first season on Merseyside, has been a national hero since he guided Egypt to their first World Cup in 28 years. But the injury he sustained in a tussle with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos dealt a body blow to Egypt’s hopes of success.
Without him, the Pharaohs lacked bite in their 1-0 opening defeat last Friday. They will be desperate not to bring their World Cup campaign to a premature end on Tuesday and disappoint millions of fans back home.
On the eve of the match, Egypt’s coach Hector Cooper said he was “sure” Salah would play. But he made similar statements before the Uruguay game and it was not clear to what extent he was merely trying to preserve Egyptian morale and keep Russia guessing.
Salah needed the help of three team-mates to put a shirt on during a training session at the weekend. On Monday he was declared fit for the Russia game, despite showing further signs of discomfort with his left shoulder.
The 26-year-old took part in light jogging around the St. Petersburg Stadium field and ran at the back of the group, with one coach gently nudging his left shoulder as he dribbled with a ball.
"We always carry out a last physical test before naming the line-up,” said Cuper. “I hope he will be fit to play, I'm sure he will be able to play. He is a central piece in our team," the coach added.
Hosts eye last 16
Russia, on the other hand, will be brimming with confidence after getting their World Cup campaign off to a perfect start with a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s opening fixture on Thursday.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov sounded bullish ahead of the match, pledging to get the job done whether or not his team face the mighty Salah.
"We know how to play against Salah," Cherchesov told reporters. "We are ready to stop him and we will."
The Saudi drubbing was a huge relief for both players and Russians who worried about being humiliated on the world's biggest sporting stage. It was preceded by a seven-match winless streak and a spate of injuries that wiped out almost the entire defensive line.
But the men in red, the tournament’s lowest-ranking team, are now on the cusp of making their first knockout stage of a World Cup in post-Soviet history – a prospect that has already earned Cherchesov a rare congratulatory phone call from the Kremlin.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)