While much of the pre-match talk ahead of Tuesday’s Group A contest between Egypt and host Russia in St. Petersburg has been focused on whether Pharaohs striker Mohamed Salah will be available for this match, the Sbornaya can take a huge step towards reaching the knockout round with a victory in this contest.
After claiming the Liverpool forward would be available for Egypt’s opener against Uruguay, boss Hector Cuper kept the superstar on the bench as it became apparent the shoulder injury he suffered in the Champions League final against Real Madrid had not fully healed.
This time around, Cuper told reporters Monday that “Salah is fit” before adding the team will conduct one last fitness check before kickoff.
“He is an essential piece to our team,” the manager understated. “He is an important player to us. Nobody can deny that. I say it with all due respect to the players in the Egyptian squad… I think he’ll be able to play.”
The Pharaohs, who nearly scraped out a draw before conceding late in a 1-0 loss to Uruguay, need a win to have any realistic hope of advancing out of this group as Russia enter the contest atop Group A with a commanding goal difference after opening the World Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov does have to make one change to his starting XI that performed so well to open this tournament as attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev is unavailable after suffering a hamstring injury in the opener. Denis Cheryshev, who scored his first two international goals after entering as a substitute, likely will take his place in the first 11.
LAST TIME OUT
The Pharaohs came oh so close to escaping Ekaterinburg with a point, but it was not to be as central defender Ahmed Hegazy was beaten to a cross by Jose Maria Gimenez, whose bullet header in the 89th minute condemend Egypt to a 1-0 defeat.
Prior to the set piece, Egypt had done well to contain the potent Uruguay strike tandem of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, though it did take on some water late as Cavani had a volley turned away by Mohamed El-Shenawy before thundering one off the crossbar prior to La Celeste’s breakthrough.
Egypt’s offense failed to spark without Salah, as both Marwan Mahson and Mahmoud Trezeguet failed to generate any quality scoring chances. The Pharaohs finished with only three shots on target as they had barely more than 40 percent possession and failed to earn a corner kick.
Russia, on the other hand, had everything come together after a disastrous World Cup run-up as they took the sword to South Arabia. While Cheryshev had a brace on either side of halftime, Aleksander Golovin won Man of the Match honors with a goal and two assists as the Sbornaya ruthlessly exploited a shambolic Saudi Arabia defense that let the hosts rampage through the midfield.
Iury Gazinsky and Artem Dzyuba scored the other goals for Russia, with Dzyuba assisting on Cheryshev’s second marker as well. Russia put seven of its 14 shots on frame and made the most of its 40 percent possession in the contest.
While Cheryshev and Salah are the expected changes for the respective teams, Tarek Hamed could be a player to keep an eye on. The Pharaohs holding midfielder was forced off shortly after the start of the second half with a bruised back following a collision with Uruguay’s Giorgian De Arrasceta, but he has been cleared to play in this match.
Cuper’s three substitutes failed to make much of an impact on the game, though Sam Morsy’s extended minutes in place of Hamed were serviceable. Mahmoud Karaba had just 16 touches in his 27 minutes after replacing Mohsen, and Ramadan Sobhy’s late entry failed to give Egypt the possession in the midfield needed to see out the match to gain a point.
Cherchesov made like Rumplestilskin against Saudi Arabia, as Cheryshov delivered two goals and Dzyuba added a third with an assist after replacing Fedor Smolov for the final 20 minutes. Daler Kuziaev was largely anonymous in his half-hour after replacing Alexander Samedov on the right wing, but by that point, he was surplus to goods given Golovin’s imperious play in the middle and Cheryshev’s star turn on the left.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Egypt – Mohamed Salah (F)
The world waits and hopes with anticipation that Salah will be able to take to the pitch for his match, but in addition to the worry of how well he can absorb contact, it has to be asked what his match fitness levels are. The striker has not played in 23 days, and while he may be game to play the full 90 minutes, Cuper will have to watch carefully to see if he can sustain his pace after 60.
Russia – Aleksander Golovin (MF)
Golovin’s only misstep in the victory was picking up a needless yellow card two minutes from time. If Russia and Uruguay win their matches, it becomes moot as both will clinch spots in the knockout round and Cherchesov has the option to hold out Golovin in the finale between the teams. If the CSKA Moscow man could put forth another effort like he did Thursday, though, the Sbornaya will be in very good shape.
Per Ladbrokes, Russia is listed as 21-20 favorites, with Egypt getting 3-1 as underdogs. The odds of a draw are listed at 2-1. The oddsmakers are fairly confident Salah will play, evidenced by his 9-2 odds as the match’s first goal-scorer. That puts him third overall behind Smolov (16-5) and Dzyuba (4-1). Cheryshev’s odds on finding the back of the net for a second straight contest are longer at 15-2, while Golovin doing likewise are 8-1.
Given how awful Saudi Arabia played and how solidly Egypt played in defense before its late breakdown, it is hard to imagine Russia scoring another five goals. Yet the Sbornaya could see more possession in this game than they did versus Saudi Arabia since the Pharaohs like to hit on the counter.
But Salah will be the fulcrum of this match. How he takes his first everything: touch, shot, body contact, foul suffered, cutback, etc., will be scrutinized to the Nth degree. It would not be surprising to see Cuper hold him out until the final half-hour and then bring him on to try and steal either one or three points depending on how the match is progressing.
Egypt must get at least a point from this match, while Russia would be happy with one given Uruguay should take care of business versus Saudi Arabia while potentially making up the goal difference in the process. Look for the Sbornaya to try and overwhelm Egypt in the first half-hour before the match settles into a cagey affair that eventually ends with a 1-1 draw.