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Africa Cup of Nations

Mo Salah’s magic makes Egypt the Africa Cup of Nations favourites

Khaled Desouki, AFP | An Egyptian woman walks past a mural of Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah in Cairo on June 17, 2019, four days ahead of the African Cup of Nations debut.

Egypt, the record seven-time winners of the Africa Cup of Nations, are seen as the team to beat as the 2019 tournament kicks off on Friday – largely thanks to the talismanic presence of Liverpool striker Mo Salah.

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Ever since Salah realised his hitherto latent potential with almighty aplomb in the 2017-18 Premier League season – as showcased by a record-smashing 32 goals in that first year at Liverpool – he has been recognised as one of the most gifted players in the modern game.

He was unable to transform this extraordinary club record into success for Egypt in the 2018 World Cup: a shoulder injury and a dirty challenge by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final robbed him of his fitness just weeks before. Deprived of their iconic striker at his best, the Pharaohs crashed out in the group stage.

Zimbabwe's players ahead of their first group match

But after another barnstorming season as the centrifugal force in Liverpool’s Champions League-winning “heavy metal” football – in which he became the joint-record-holder for goals in one’s first 100 games for the Reds, scoring 36 – the 27 year-old Salah looks primed to work his magic for Egypt as they host the Africa Cup of Nations, with the shortest odds to take the trophy at 9-2, according to British bookmakers William Hill.

The Reds striker provided what may be a prologue to transformational performances in the pan-African tournament on June 17, coming off from the bench in the second half to set up goals for Ahmed Ali and Omar Gaber. Salah’s assists led to a decisive 3-1 victory for the Pharaohs in this warm-up friendly against Guinea – no pushovers, boasting an array of dynamic players, including Salah’s Liverpool teammate Naby Keita.

Salah’s protean threat

The Egyptian genius’ selfless goal-creation in that match reminded the football world that he is a protean threat – combining clinical finishing skills in the box with lethal attacking midfield creativity that cuts through the opponents’ defenders to make it an easy job for his goalscoring partners.

Yet Salah is not the only trump card Egypt have to play. The Pharaohs’ role as the hosts confers on them a significant advantage, as the manager of Zimbabwe – the first side they will face, in the tournament’s opener on Friday – ruefully admitted.

Touting the Pharaohs as the favourites, Sunday Chidzambwa added that “we know how strong Egypt are especially when they play at home [with] the fans on their side”.

Indeed, the Egyptian fans will not only be cheering Salah on. Although the Liverpool icon is the only player to have attracted worldwide name recognition, the Pharaohs boast a variety of little-known talents.

Perhaps chief amongst them is Salah’s namesake and fellow Premier League player Mohamed Elneny, who has totted up 46 appearances as a solid defensive midfielder for Arsenal since 2016 – bolstering the Gunners with unshowy competence at the nitty-gritty of the anchorman role, during a difficult transitional period for the club.

The Egyptian side also includes such stalwarts as their captain, Ahmed Elmohamady. The right-back is unlikely to set the world on fire with his explosive ingenuity, as Salah has, but he epitomises the experience and unpretentious competence at the spine of the Egyptian team. Alongside a club career in England as a reliable defensive presence for Sunderland, Hull City and now Aston Villa, Elmohamady has notched up an impressive 83 caps for Egypt since 2010, and was a key component of their march to 2018 World Cup qualification.

The Pharoahs’ manager Javier Aguirre seems well-suited to eke impressive results out of the likes of Elneny and Elmohamady. In the 2000s, the Mexican garnered acclaim for taking two underperforming La Liga clubs to the next level. Brought in to save Osasuna from relegation in 2002-03, Aguirre not only saved them from the danger zone, but also went on to guide them to the 2005 Copa Del Rey final. That preceded a spell at an altogether more venerable Spanish club – Atletico Madrid – whom the Mexican propelled to their first Champions League place in 14 years at the end of the 2007-08 season.

To say the least, Aguirre won’t have to worry about motivating Egypt’s iconic striker, who has shown a fierce resolve to make a summer of trophy-winning glory follow his 2018 summer of discontent. Salah recalled that before the Champions League final in which he scored a penalty to help gift Liverpool the top prize in the club game, he “looked at the picture from last year before the game”, referring to that (in)famous final against Real Madrid.

“I was very disappointed that I got injured and went off and we lost the game,” Salah continued. “It was something to motivate me to win. I just looked at it one time and said, ‘Okay, let’s go’.”

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