It has never been that close for World Cup-hungry Egypt to qualify for football’s most prestigious showpiece.
The Pharaohs lost in two playoffs in the qualifying campaigns of the previous two editions but Russia 2018 comes calling this year after Ghana played out a 0-0 draw at Uganda in a controversial match on Saturday where several decisive refereeing decisions went against the Black Stars.
The stalemate means Egypt will book a World Cup spot for the first time in almost three decades with one match to spare in Group E if they beat Congo in Alexandria on Sunday.
Egypt lead the group with nine points and should they overcome Congo, they will gain an unassailable four-point lead over nearest challengers Uganda before facing Ghana away from home in the final round next month.
Many stars of the current Egypt side were not even born when the national team made the last of their two World Cup appearances in 1990 in Italy.
Since then, there have been some near-misses and heartbreaking stories for the seven-time African champions, including a controversial decision to replay a qualifier against Zimbabwe in 1993 and a couple of costly missed chances in front of an open goal in the 2002 qualifiers.
Egypt also looked on the brink of ending their barren run in 2009 and 2013, only to lose to Algeria and Ghana in two playoffs respectively. The latter loss was particularly painful, with Egypt suffering a humiliating 7-3 aggregate defeat by a mighty Ghana side.
The bold tactics of then coach Bob Bradley was mainly blamed by fans for the fiasco but his successor, Argentinean boss Hector Cuper, is much more cautious.
The former Inter Milan and Valencia coach sometimes comes under fire for what many deem his overly-defensive strategies but his game plans have also proved effective to a large extent, with Egypt reaching the African Nations Cup final early this year, only to lose to Cameroon in the final.
Fans often make jokes over Egypt and Cuper’s repeated stumbles at the last hurdle, with the veteran coach losing two successive Champions League finals while at Valencia and the Italian Serie A on the final day of the season while at Inter Milan, but it’s the perfect time for both to lay their ghosts to rest.
“The challenge is stressful, of course. I am taking hypertension medicine due the stress I suffer from the continuing criticism. Life is full of stress, but the challenge of reaching the World Cup is the toughest stress I have faced,” Cuper said ahead of the Congo match.
Egypt are expected to be roared on by over 70,000 supporters at the country’s biggest stadium – Borg El-Arab venue in Alexandria
They are firm favourites to down a Congo side who have only gained one point in four matches from a surprise draw away to Ghana.
“Congo is a good team combining players with great individual skill, but we are ready for the game,” Cuper confidently said.
“We have studied Congo well. We will be focusing on their weak points.”
Egypt will have to do without key playmaker Abdallah El-Said, who often combines well with Liverpool’s in-form forward Mohamed Salah to unlock opposing backlines, due to injury. He is likely to be replaced by Ahly’s Saleh Gomaa.
Defensive midfielder Hossam Ashour and winger Mostafa Fathi, who usually play bit-part roles, were also ruled out of the game because of injuries.
There was also an injury scare for Saudi Arabia-based winger Mahmoud Kahraba but he has been declared fit to play.
Source: Ahram online