Mohamed Salah‘s exceptional season is set to come to an agonising end after hosts Russia all but extinguished Egypt’s World Cup hopes.
A dream first season at Liverpool helped establish the 26-year-old as one of the star names at these finals, with expectations heightened as his country strutted out on the global stage for the first time since 1990.
But the shoulder injury sustained in the Reds’ Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid derailed preparations, meaning Salah was reduced to a watching brief as Group A started with a late defeat to Uruguay.
That loss was compounded emphatically as the forward started in St Petersburg, where his penalty was only a consolation as Egypt lost 3-1 to Russia.
“I think that nobody can deny or argue Mo Salah’s importance in the Egypt national team,” Egypt head coach Hector Cuper said after a loss that leaves them facing a group-stage exit.
“What would have happened if he’d been on top form in both matches? Well, that’s very hard to say now.
“But I think that he would have given us all his quality and his ability.
“Mo Salah was feeling good to play today.
“You’ve seen him on the pitch, he was in good shape and nobody can argue that he isn’t extremely important to the team.
“But I always say behind a player or two brilliant players, there has to be a team and I feel proud because I’ve had a team.
“Perhaps we weren’t decisive enough, perhaps we lacked that little extra thing to get there, but I must recognise the great effort that they have done after 28 years where Egypt had not taken part in a World Cup.”
Egypt will be knocked out if Uruguay avoid defeat against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, with their seemingly imminent exit leading Cuper to come under immediate pressure.
“First of all, whether or should I say in my post or not is something that does not only depend on me,” the Argentinian said after Ahmed Fathi’s own goal was compounded by Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba efforts.
“If those responsible are not happy with what I have done then I will be the first to leave. There’s no doubt about that.
“But we still have another match to play.
“It is difficult to say this but in the World Cup you have to wait until the very last minute, although it’s true that our chances are minimal.”
Portugal manager Fernando Santos has warned his team about the threat Morocco will pose in Wednesday’s World Cup Group B fixture.
Morocco’s 1-0 defeat by Iran has put them under pressure to secure a positive result and revive their chances of progressing to the knockout stages.
Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain also leaves them in an uncertain position, but although they remain favourites finish in the top two alongside their neighbours, Santos recognises the danger involved in Wednesday’s meeting.
Morocco were expected to be their biggest rivals for second place, behind Spain, and the 63-year-old told FIFA’s official website: “The Morocco team is very good; one of the best African squads. They’re very good and have players who’ve been playing mostly in Europe.
“They’re very well organised, they know the game technically and tactically. They’ve always played to their full intensity on the pitch and we have to respond to that.
“Portugal’s ready. We have to do what we’ve done so far; give our best in terms of concentration, and respond to the opponents’ intensity. It’s a very important game because nothing’s been decided.
“We’ve thought about what we did (against Spain) – the good things, the less good things. We’ve tried to continue improving what we did well and rectify what we didn’t do so well, but it’s two or three days, we don’t have magic dust.
“I hope Cristiano (Ronaldo) will play a great match. We’re used to that almost, not only in the last match but his career as a whole. I hope he and our team are ready, and we’ll be able to face a strong team like Morocco. But I’ve never seen a player win a game on his own.”
Santos refused to reveal if he would make changes to his team, but he was joined at Tuesday’s press conference by Pepe, who added: “They’re strong as a whole. It’s a good team; they fight quite well, and work very well and are very well trained.
“It’s nothing new, about Cristiano Ronaldo. We had a fantastic match and it’s very important he’s so humble on the pitch to help the team and the country. We’re very happy with him and his performance.
“I hope this is going to be a good match for us. We are representing our country, and this is the most important thing right now to all of us.”
England’s wing men Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young are confident there is enough firepower in the side to share the scoring burden if Harry Kane’s hot streak ever cools down.
Trippier and Young were charged with providing the width, and the crosses, in England’s 2-1 victory over Tunisia and each provided a corner which ended with Kane converting.
With 15 goals in 25 appearances – including a record of 10 in 10 during Gareth Southgate’s managerial reign – The Tottenham forward is out on his own as the Three Lions’ danger man in Russia.
The rest of the starting XI at the Volgograd Arena boast just 12 between them, including seven from Young’s previous incarnation as an attacker.
Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli all have superior records at club level and have been backed to start chipping in soon after a handful of chances went begging in Volgograd.
“If Harry doesn’t score we’ve got players who can,” said Tripper.
“We’re one team over here and we know we’ve got quality all over the pitch. We’ve got Marcus Rashford, Raheem, Dele, Ruben (Loftus-Cheek), they’ve had fine seasons, Jesse has as well…Vards (Jamie Vardy).
“They’ve had excellent seasons for their clubs and hopefully in this tournament they can provide some for us.”
Young, fresh from his first World Cup appearance at the age of 32, was singing from the same hymn sheet.
“I think you need goals from all over the pitch and I think that’s what we’ll be looking to do,” he said.
“You want a major goalscorer, a striker that’s going to take chances, but we’ve got that in abundance around the team with Vards, Welbs (Danny Welbeck) and the kid Rashford.
“It’s not just the strikers, it’s the midfielders as well. We saw Jesse had a few chances, Raz (Sterling) had a few chances as well. There’s plenty of goals I’ve seen all over this team and I think if everyone’s chipping in and pulling in the same direction it just sets us up right for the next game.”
There is no doubt who will be carrying the nation’s hopes when they take on unfancied Panama on Sunday and it is not just fans who feel better about life when Kane is on the field.
“If things are not working he’s got a big voice in the dressing room, everyone listens to him,” said Trippier.
“He has a presence. When he’s with you, you just feed off him. He lifts you when he’s around, he just lifts you. He dedicates his life to football. He’s so professional.”