ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — For a man of modest demeanour, Mohamed Salah has the keenest sense of theatre. Over the past 12 months, storylines at club and international level have bent to his will, and even when things turned against him in the Champions League final, the biggest of all was the injury that threatened his participation at the World Cup.
Now the stage is set for Salah to make his most dramatic intervention of all: Egypt need him to rise, Lazarus-like, from the treatment table to save their tournament when they face a buoyant Russian side on Tuesday evening.
“Salah is fit,” Egypt coach Hector Cuper said to an expectant audience at his prematch news conference. “I hope he will be fit to play. I think he will be fit to play. He is an essential piece of this team.”
Tonally, there was not a huge difference between this and Cuper’s pronouncement four days earlier that Salah would face Uruguay. On that occasion Salah did not make it, and Egypt fell agonisingly short, losing to an 89th minute goal that left their hopes of escaping Group A hanging in the balance. He used the same caveat that he did then — Salah would face a fitness test before his participation was confirmed — and the element of doubt about the Liverpool forward’s true condition remains significant. But the sense is that Salah will be hauled up, out and onto the Krestovsky Stadium pitch, called upon to make the impossible a reality once again.
It certainly seemed that way during the team’s final training session in St. Petersburg. Salah participated fully and there was the curious sight of Egypt’s fitness coach purposefully bumping his shoulder as he ran along, as if to replicate the kind of impact he might expect to receive during one of his trademarks bursts down the flank. Egypt’s coaching staff are toughening him up as best it can.
“I’m not saying he is a guarantee, but he’s definitely an important offensive weapon, and I have to say that when we don’t have him, we feel his absence and need to come up with alternatives in the attack,” Cuper said.
It was some admission, but Cuper was merely stating the obvious. There was little wrong with Egypt’s defensive shape against Uruguay, but they barely created a true scoring chance despite one or two promising situations. Goals have rarely been a strong point under Cuper, and it was Salah, with that dramatic double contribution against Congo last October, who booked their World Cup trip in the first place.
Yet they need to pack a punch now, particularly as the five goals Russia scored against Saudi Arabia could prove crucial if the teams end up level on points. Cuper had to field questions from the Egyptian media about the team’s setup, which has long been deemed too defensive by some critics.
“We have an identity, we have a personality. It may not please everyone, but we have our style,” he said. They do, but in order to be fully efficient, it depends hugely on explosive counterattacks led, and often finished, by Salah.
The encouragement for Egypt is that while Uruguay are a notoriously tough nut to crack, Russia should offer them opportunities. Stanislav Cherchesov’s side might have made the perfect start to their home tournament, but the reality is that they are a modest outfit that remain defensively vulnerable.
“We know how to do this, and tomorrow you will see it,” Cherchesov said when asked about their plan to repel Salah and Egypt.
Russia are likely to operate with caution, aware that a point would leave them in prime position to qualify. Keeping Egypt three points behind would leave the north Africans needing a goal bonanza of their own against the Saudis, and Salah or no Salah, it is not the kind of challenge they tend to find comfortable.
In short, Egypt need to start winning now. It could be a decisive evening for them and perhaps for Salah, too. He turned 26 on Saturday; it is perhaps the perfect age for a footballer, and there are no guarantees that four years from now, he will be operating at a level quite this devastating. It had always seemed written that his time to illuminate a World Cup would be now.
“Salah is one of the best players in the world, he’s in the top 10 today,” Cuper said when invited to lavish praise upon their talisman. Nobody would seriously dispute it; proving it again now might just be his biggest achievement yet.