Mo Salah finally made his World Cup bow and scored a goal but the Egyptian could not save his country as the Pharaohs’ hopes of progressing to the knockout stages of football’s showpiece event were all but ended by a clinical Russia.
On a rainy night in St Petersburg, Russia recorded their second convincing win of the group stages with this 3-1 victory against an Egyptian side which had hoped that Salah’s return from injury would kickstart their tournament.
Competing at a World Cup for the first time in 28 years, Egypt’s campaign is effectively over within five days thanks to second-half strikes by Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba, and an Ahmed Fathi own goal.
The win leaves Russia top of Group A with six points, while a second loss in as many games means Egypt’s World Cup will end in disappointment.
Egypt have to hope for the unlikely on Wednesday — a Saudi Arabia victory over Uruguay — if they are to have any chance of getting beyond Group A. Should Saudi Arabia fail to beat the South Americans, Russia will qualify for the last 16 and Egypt will be eliminated.
Not Salah’s night
Much of the conversation before the match focused on Salah, Liverpool’s standout player, the winner of numerous end-of-season awards and a player who had scored a record-breaking amount of goals in his debut campaign for the English Premier League side.
Having not fully recovered from the shoulder injury sustained in the Champions League final against Real Madrid, the 25-year-old missed Egypt’s opening game defeat by Uruguay.
For this crucial second match his country expected, perhaps too much, though this is a man who was involved in 58 goals in 52 games (44 goals, 14 assists) for Liverpool and scored five times in the qualifying campaign for the Pharaohs.
It is not without reason that Salah is called the “happiness maker” in his home village and nicknamed the “Egyptian King” by Liverpool fans, but the 25-year-old lacked match sharpness after sustaining a shoulder injury in that final on May 26.
In a drab first half which the hosts — buoyed by a raucous home support — edged, Salah had just the one chance — a shot which went wide on the turn from the edge of the box. He made a number of neat passes, but his 19 touches in the first half was the fewest made by any Egyptian outfield player.
He did find the net from the penalty spot after the VAR became involved in awarding Egypt a spotkick for a foul by Roman Zobnin on Salah after the referee had initially deemed the transgression to be a freekick, but the 73rd-minute penalty came too late.
Russia attempted to capitalize on the aerial prowess of the 6ft 4in Dzyuba but Egypt’s defence held firm — until the opening seconds of the second half at least when Ahmed Fathi scored the fifth own goal of this tournament.
Zobnin’s wayward long-range shot struck Fathi and arrowed into the bottom corner of goal via the defender’s leg and from there on the hosts dominated.
Two goals within three minutes effectively secured victory for a Russian team which had received a congratulatory message from Russian president Vladimir Putin following their sensational 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
Cheryshev stabbed home a Mario Fernandes pull-back while Dzyuba brilliantly controlled a long ball and beat defender, Ali Gabr, before shooting beyond Mohamed Elshenawy.
The home fans were jubilant as their team, the lowest ranked in this tournament at 70 in the world, secured only their second win in nine games and took a firm step into the last-16 having failed to reach the knockout stages in three previous attempts.
Their eight goals from their opening two games is a joint-record for a host nation, equaling a marker set by Italy in 1934.
Egypt, much like Liverpool in the Champions League final after Salah had departed the field injured before halftime, were left to wonder what might have been had their talisman been fully fit.
Photo credit: CNN