Mohamed Salah is a looming obstacle as Russia attempt to virtually secure their place in the knockout stages of the World Cup in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday.
Fears that poor performances from the home side could dampen enthusiasm in the host nation were blown away by a 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the opening game.
The seven-time African champions will pose a much tougher task, but a lot will depend upon Salah’s fitness.
Liverpool star Salah has not featured since leaving the field in tears early in the Champions League final just over three weeks ago after landing heavily on his left shoulder and had to watch from the bench as Egypt lost 1-0 to Uruguay in their opening game.
Salah has been declared 100 percent fit by Egypt’s team doctor and his agent, leaving little doubt he will be thrown back into action in the Pharaohs’ hour of need.
However, as he returned to training on Saturday, Salah was seen by AFP reporters at Egypt’s training camp in Grozny needing help from teammates to lift a training top over his head.
“Salah participated in training with his teammates for the entire session and he is ready to play against Russia according to technical staff,” Egypt’s team manager Ihab Leheta told FIFA.com.
Egypt coach Hector Cuper’s decision not to risk Salah against Uruguay may have been influenced by the fact his side held out for 89 minutes before conceding to Jose Gimenez, by which time the Argentine had made all three of his substitutions.
“Russia’s game is fateful and difficult because of our defeat against Uruguay,” said Leheta.
“Winning is our only choice”.
– Most important game –
If fully fit, the sight of Salah, who scored 44 goals in a remarkable debut season at Liverpool, will strike fear into the Russians.
Concerns Russia could become just the second host nation to bow out of the World Cup at the group stage after a seven-game winless run ahead of the tournament have been alleviated by a perfect start.
With Uruguay favourites to top the group, though, Russia are keen not to have to rely on getting something from their final group game against the two-time former world champions.
“The second game will be our most important one in the group stage,” said Russia’s deputy prime minister and former football federation president Vitaly Mutko after attending Russia’s training session on Sunday.
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, Mutko oversaw preparations for the tournament at a cost of more than 13 billion.
“In the first match, everyone saw how much the players cared. If we play up to our level, I don’t see any problems.” Denis Cheryshev was Russia’s hero against Saudi Arabia as he came off the bench to score twice.
And the Villarreal winger accepted it will be a more “interesting” clash if Salah is fit.
“If he’s not there, does that mean our task becomes easy? Not at all,” he told FIFA.com “If he plays, it will be hard but more interesting. He’s one of the best and you always want to compete with the best and win.” Russia will be without one of their key players, with Alan Dzagoev expected to miss the rest of the tournament with a hamstring injury. (PTI)