Egypt v Zimbabwe: Expectations mount as Salah launches bid for glory
Mohamed Salah will carry the hopes of the host nation into Egypt's 2019 Africa Cup of Nations opener against Zimbabwe in Cairo on Friday.
The Pharaohs and the continent's outstanding player are chasing an eighth African title having fallen short in the 2017 final against Cameroon.
The champions were the intended hosts before organisers stripped them of those rights amid security and preparation concerns, and Egypt's record when staging the AFCON is formidable.
Three of the previous four times – 1959, 1986 and 2006 – they have run out winners and came third in 1974.
Having a fully fledged global star such as Liverpool forward Salah in their ranks only serves to heighten expectations in a football-mad nation.
"In Egypt, football is almost a religion," said their former Mexico head coach Javier Aguirre, who has overseen six wins and one defeat from eight matches in charge since succeeding Hector Cuper, in an interview with The National.
"It's totally crazy. Mohamed Salah is like… do you remember David Beckham at Real Madrid? I was living there at the time [while in charge of Atletico Madrid] and it was unimaginable.
"Many security guards. He could not even go to the street. With Mohamed, it's very difficult. Today, in Muslim countries, in African countries, he's the best. No doubt about it. For the fans, he's like [Lionel] Messi or Cristiano [Ronaldo]. It's unbelievable."
Zimbabwe boss Sunday Chidzambwa believes Egypt are the tournament favourites and is realistic about his own team's prospects at Cairo International Stadium.
"We know how strong Egypt are especially when they play at home and the fans on their side supporting them throughout the competition," he told reporters.
"Now that we are in the AFCON group stages, we will work hard to get the best possible results in all our games."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Egypt – Mohamed Salah
The likes of Mohamed Elneny and captain Ahmed Elmohamady underline the fact Egypt are far from a one-man team. But it is impossible to look beyond their star attraction, who heads into a moment of reckoning before his adoring public at the peak of his powers and as a Champions League winner. Stop him if you can.
Zimbabwe – Nyasha Mushekwi
Back in the national team picture for the first time in two years after scoring 15 times for Dalian Yifang in the Chinese Super League last season. The 30-year-old striker is well travelled, having plied his trade in South Africa, Belgium and Sweden before moving to Asia.
KEY OPTA FACTS
- Egypt have reached the final in each of their last four AFCON participations, losing only one of their last 25 games in the competition (W18 D6) – but that was the final in 2017.
- Zimbabwe are making their fourth AFCON appearance. They have finished bottom of their group in each of their previous three participations and never kept a clean sheet in nine matches.
- Salah was directly involved in four of Egypt's five goals at the 2017 AFCON, with two goals and as many assists – the joint most in the tournament alongside DR Congo's Junior Kabananga.