Nizhny Novgorod: Talisman Mohammad Salah’s shoulder injury loomed like a dark cloud over Egypt’s World Cup campaign as they were quickly eliminated despite harbouring high hopes of making an impact on their return to the finals after a 28-year absence.
The uncertainty surrounding the Liverpool forward’s participation after he suffered shoulder ligament damage in last month’s Champions League final, had a huge impact on both preparations and team confidence coming into the tournament.
“It would have been a lot more desirable to have had him with us as we prepared,” said coach Hector Cuper, whose meticulous pre-tournament preparations in Switzerland were skipped by Salah as the striker battled to be fit for Russia.
The ‘will he, won’t he play’ speculation extended past the opening game, where Cuper took a view that the match against Uruguay would be their toughest Group A assignment and opted not to risk Salah with two less taxing fixtures to follow.
Salah’s subsequent comeback was expected to lift Egypt’s performance up several gears and although he scored against Russia and Saudi Arabia, they lost both to limp home amid bitter disappointment and still without a win at the finals.
“I would like to thank all the people who travelled here and supported us for the three matches. I know it’s as difficult for you as it is for us,” Salah said. “I want to apologise to you from all my heart.”
Besides the goal, Salah occasionally showcased his dizzying dribbling skills and contested for every ball. But there was nothing he could do about the result.
Egypt, which was playing at the World Cup for the first time since 1990, finished in last place in the group in what has become a hugely disappointing tournament for the Egyptians.
After the Saudis scored their injury-time winner on Monday, Salah pulled his jersey up over his face. Minutes later, he politely acknowledged the thousands of Egyptians who roared every time he touched the ball before he disappeared inside the tunnel.
“Maybe he was not able to do what he normally does, what we’re used to, but he scored,” Cuper said of Salah. “He did play, and maybe we could have expected more but he can’t be the only one to give everything.”
After Saudi Arabia opened the World Cup with a “shameful” 5-0 humiliation at the hands of hosts Russia, the Asian side showed a marked improvement in their subsequent Group A matches and will go home buoyed by the victory over Egypt.
The 2-1 come-from-behind win in Volgograd handed the Green Falcons a first World Cup victory in 24 years and lifted them up to third place in the group — no mean feat considering they were the second-lowest ranked side of the tournament.
That upswing was evident in Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s own description of the tournament as the Argentine-born former Spain international described the defeat against Russia as a shock.
“We were taken by surprise,” he told reporters.
Salman Al Faraj scored the team’s first goal of the tournament against Egypt after the Saudis were awarded a penalty on the stroke of halftime, before Salem Al Dawsari slotted home the winning goal in the 95th minute.
“They will be able to tell their children, grandchildren: ‘I scored during a World Cup’,” added Pizzi.
Once back in the kingdom, the Saudis will turn their attention to preparing for next year’s Asian Cup hosted by the UAE.
“We will focus on the Asian Cup and I am absolutely convinced, 100 per cent sure, that we will continue to improve in the next six months and that we will be able to compete at the highest level and go there to win the cup,” Pizzi said.
While it remains unclear how long Pizzi will stay on at the helm of the Saudi Arabian squad, who have had a high turnover of coaches, the former striker appeared to be taking a long view.
“We need to keep working, we need to be patient, we need to support the team. Nothing can be achieved from one day to another, everything takes time,” Pizzi said.