Egypt forward Mohamed Salah has recovered from a shoulder injury and is almost 100% certain to play in their World Cup opener against Uruguay, coach Hector Cuper said yesterday, ending weeks of suspense about the fitness of his most dangerous striker.
Cuper went further by predicting on the eve of the match that Salah could emerge as one of the tournament’s most prolific goalscorers.
“Mo is doing very well indeed. He’s recovered very, very quickly — we’ve paid a lot of attention to him,” the veteran coach told a news conference before the squad’s last training session ahead of Friday’s match.
“I can almost assure you 100% that he will play, save unforeseen circumstances at the very last minute.”
Salah, who scored 44 goals for Liverpool last season, injured shoulder ligaments in the Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid on May 26 and has not played since, keeping fans in suspense before Egypt’s first World Cup finals in 28 years.
Cuper shrugged off any doubts over whether Salah, who turns 26 on the day of the match, would feel sufficiently confident of his physical state to be able to perform at his best.
“We’re trying to make him feel confident — even the doctors are giving him the option to play or not, but I know Salah very well and I’m sure he’s not afraid, he’s not fearful,” he said.
“In terms of him on the pitch — if he does decide to play he’ll have full guarantees in terms of his physical condition, he’s going to be fine. Certainly he doesn’t feel afraid.”
Egypt are back in the World Cup finals for the first time since 1990 and their progress to the last 16 could hinge on Salah enjoying the form that saw him voted England’s Player of the Year by his fellow professionals.
Uruguay are the toughest opponents for the north African team, and they will fancy their chances of advancing from Group A, which also includes Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Cuper added that Salah’s inclusion would depend on him coming through their final training session unscathed. Watched closely by dozens of cameras on Thursday, the striker appeared not to overstrain himself during training.
A Russian reporter staying at Egypt’s team hotel said that Salah had also been working with a trainer until after midnight following their arrival in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday.
Cuper also entertained a question from a reporter about Salah’s prospects of emerging as the top scorer at the tournament.
“Why not? He could become the top goalscorer here and one of the greatest players.” (Additional reporting and writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Ken Ferris and Toby Davis)
The suspense over Salah has taken the spotlight away from the return to the World Cup arena of Uruguay’s own talisman, Luis Suarez, whose two previous appearances at the finals have ensured him a legacy of folly.
“I want there to be the possibility of this being my World Cup, after having left in the way I did in 2014,” he said in a recent radio interview.
Now 31, and Uruguay’s leading goal scorer, Suarez was the catalyst for his country’s unlikely march to the semi-finals in 2010. However, he earned notoriety in their controversial quarter-final victory, when he handled the ball on the goal line to deny opponents Ghana a place in the last four instead.
Suarez was hailed a self-sacrificing hero back home for the calculated decision, for which he was sent off and suspended, but derided everywhere else for an act of callous gamesmanship.
In Brazil four years ago, he bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the closing stage of Uruguay’s last group game and was subsequently slapped with a record nine-match ban from competitive internationals.
But Suarez has continued to be key for his country and is back with a chance to redeem himself in a strong Uruguay side, still with the core of the squad that finished fourth in South Africa eight years ago.
Uruguay finished second in the South American qualifying and are considered favourites to top Group A, despite the presence of hosts Russia.
Egypt return to the World Cup for the first time since 1990, having finally overcome a succession of qualifying failures despite strong performances in the African Nations Cup.
Coach Hector Cuper could choose to play Essam El Hadary, who will set the record for the oldest player to feature at a World Cup if he plays on Friday.
The veteran goalkeeper will be 45 years, four months and 29 days old, easily beating the mark set by 43-year-old Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon at the last finals in Brazil.
Egypt play Uruguay in a Group A match today
Where: Ekaterinburg Arena, Yekaterinburg
When: Friday June 15, 3pm Qatar Time
— Two-time winners Uruguay compete at their 13th World Cup, compared to just two past appearances for Egypt.
— Uruguay have failed to win any of their opening games at the last six World Cups they have competed in, stretching back to 1974. Egypt’s two previous opening games were also winless.
— Should Edinson Cavani or Maxi Pereira feature in all three of their country’s group games in Russia, they will go level on 13 appearances with Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, the Uruguayan who has played the most games at the World Cup.
— Egypt’s Abdulrahman Fawzi was the first African to score at the World Cup, netting in their 4-2 to loss to Hungary in Naples in the 1934 tournament.
Previous meetings: The two have played each other once with Uruguay winning.
Last meeting: Egypt 0 Uruguay 2 (Cairo, 16 August, 2006)
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