Egypt’s hopes of a first ever World Cup win rose and fell with Salah as the Liverpool star failed to recover fully from injury
Mohamed Salah scored and took the accolade as Man of the Match, but Egypt returned home to Cairo lamenting what might have been.
The 2-1 last-second defeat to Saudi Arabia after Salah’s opening goal in the Volgograd Arena was a bitter pill to swallow for coach Hector Cuper and his side.
Fans will be calling for Cuper’s head after the World Cup finished for the Pharaohs with three defeats, following the losses to Uruguay (1-0) and Russia (3-1).
Leading up to the World Cup, optimism was sky high in the north African country in what seemed on paper to be one of the easiest groups.
Back at a World Cup for the first time in 28 years, Egyptians were expecting at least a first tournament win at their third appearance.
Then came the May 26 Champions League final and Salah’s shoulder injury while playing for Liverpool against Real Madrid. Salah’s five goals in the African qualifiers had earned Egypt their ticket to Russia, and the 26-year-old forward had completed a marvellous first season for Liverpool with 44 goals in all.
But unable to take part in the last few weeks of intensive training with the squad, he was unable to play against Uruguay. He did return against Russia and scored from the penalty spot, yet it was clear he was not fully fit.
Egypt’s hopes have risen and fallen with Salah. The injury was an unwelcome setback, and the fuss around the star at the team’s base in Chechnya an unnecessary distraction.
Salah, according to some reports, cut an unhappy figure after feeling he was used for propaganda purposes while in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Cuper left Russia denying there were any problems in the camp, or that Salah looked a little off the pace.
“Maybe we could have expected more but he cannot be the only one to give everything,” he said.
Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi believes Salah’s injury must have impacted on Egypt:
“He couldn’t prepare at the same pace,” he said. “I think psychologically this injury was probably hard for his team, as it was for his club Liverpool.”
Egypt played a defensive game, hoping to give Salah more space on the counter-attack. It worked in the first half with opportunities on the break, but Saudi Arabia’s greater possession eventually wore the Pharaohs down.
Pizzi was applauded as he entered the press conference room after the match. His side had won 24 years ago to the day that Saudi Arabia chalked up a maiden victory in the World Cup, beating Morocco 2-1 in 1994.
Salem Aldawsari’s goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time also gave the Green Falcons a fresh World Cup victory following three subsequent winless tournaments.
The two sides were playing for prestige after Uruguay and Russia had already clinched their last 16 places from the group – with Uruguay then claiming top spot with a 3-0 win over the hosts.
Yet there was still much at stake.
“The World Cup is the most important thing there is,” Pizzi said.
“You really don’t understand what it means for a player to score at a World Cup, for Salem or Salman (Alfaraj), for example,” Pizzi said.