Mohamed Salah was on target as Africa Cup of Nations hosts Egypt ensured they emerged from Group A with a perfect record despite a stern examination by Uganda.
Liverpool striker Salah’s free-kick and a second goal from Aston Villa midfielder Ahmed Elmohamady before the break secured a 2-0 win.
But the scoreline flattered them on a night when Sebastien Desabre’s side, who finished second in the group with four points and take their place in the last-16, more than gave as good as they got in Cairo.
Egypt keeper Mohamed El-Shenawy had made a number of good saves before Salah curled a left-foot free-kick over the wall and past keeper Denis Onyango in the 36th minute.
Skipper Elmohamady smashed home a second in first-half stoppage time to clinch a third successive victory for Egypt, all without conceding a goal.
Salah almost made it 3-0 early in the second half, only to be denied Onyango, who is a doubt for the knockout phase after being stretchered off with 18 minutes remaining.
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The eyes of the world are focusing on talents elsewhere in Argentina’s squad following their impressive 2-0 win over Venezuela in the Copa America quarter-finals, but Brazil defender Thiago Alves insists Lionel Messi is the one to watch.
The South American giants meet for a place in the Copa final on Monday with Messi arriving at the mouth-watering contest with just one goal, via the penalty spot, in the tournament so far.
But veteran Selecao centre-back Silva says he won’t let the Argentina captain out of his sight during their semi-final meeting.
“He is the best player in the world and he still could spring to life,” Silva told reporters ahead of the first Copa contest between the sides since the 2007 final, which Brazil won 3-0.
“We will have to be especially focused on him when we have the ball and when we don’t. Sometimes he can be at walking pace during a game but he’s always looking for space to launch a counterattack.
“It’s a privilege to be able to face him again and we’ll have to try and put the brakes on him.”
Messi has himself acknowledged he’s yet to hit his best levels in Brazil, although that hasn’t been to the detriment of La Albiceleste who appeared a more cohesive unit in the win over Venezuela.
“The truth is I’m not having my best Copa America, it’s always very difficult for us because we want to do something different and attack and teams pack out the middle of the pitch,” he said after his country’s quarter-final success.
“No one is giving anything away cheaply in this Copa, it’s very difficult to play because the pitches are very bad, it’s shameful. The ball is like a rabbit, it can go anywhere and you can’t dribble.”
Argentina winger Angel Di Maria is adamant that despite his low output in terms of goals and assists, Messi remains pivotal.
“We are used to seeing him score goals but Leo is doing very well, he is running a lot, he is working hard,” he said.
“He knows more than anyone that at this Copa America the first thing you need to do is run, then you can think about the rest, playing well and scoring.”
But when the the country needed the five-time Ballon d’Or winner most, Messi failed to emulate the feats of Diego Maradona in 1986 – when for some he almost single-handedly won the World Cup.
Four times Messi has lined up with Argentina in a major final – the 2014 World Cup and Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016 – but every time they have lost.
He has often come under criticism for failing to reproduce his Barcelona form when wearing the sky blue and white jersey of the national team.
Now, ahead of a mouth-watering Copa semi-final against hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte, Argentines are simply waiting for Messi to turn up.
“This is the match for Messi to appear,” screamed Ole newspaper’s online edition after Argentina beat Venezuela 2-0 to secure the Brazil semi-final.
Ironically, at this tournament, while Argentina’s performances have been improving steadily, Messi has, if anything, become less influential.
Argentina were all at sea in their opening 2-0 defeat to Colombia and needed a Messi penalty to salvage a 1-1 draw with Paraguay.
But in the 2-0 win over Qatar that qualified Argentina for the knock-out rounds, and the quarter-final victory over Venezuela by the same score, Messi became an increasingly peripheral figure.
‘Not at my best’
He admitted as much after the Venezuela match, saying: “I’m not at my best level, I’m not playing how I hoped I would. I’m not having my best Copa America.”
Brazil center-back Thiago Silva is not so convinced, though.
“For me, Messi is the best player in history, the best I’ve ever seen play. It’s a privilege to play against him,” said a player who hails from the country that produced Pele, Garincha, Socrates, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
Messi turned 32 during the tournament and while he doesn’t appear close to retirement, it cannot be too many years away.
His game has changed over the years and he no longer produces the same kind of, or quantity of, darting runs at the heart of opposition defences.
He plays deeper than he used to, passes more and is more selective with his runs.
He also rests more than he used to and took an eight-month break from the national team following the World Cup in Russia, only returning in March in a 3-1 friendly defeat to Venezuela.
But he is more than just the star of the team these days, he is the leader and captains both club and country.
During the club season, Messi took the lead in defending Philippe Coutinho, whom he will line up opposite on Tuesday, from criticism levelled at the Brazilian playmaker in the Catalan press.
Messi also defended Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde against the brickbats.
And here, while his and Argentina’s attacking performances have been nothing to enthuse about, Messi took the time to praise the team’s defensive efforts.
“Defensively we didn’t have any problems and the team was very solid at all times,” he said following the Venezuela victory, which he described as a “complete” performance.
And Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni acknowledges that Messi brings much more than just brilliance on the field.
“For me he gives an essential contribution on the pitch, and if you saw everything he brings in the dressing room…” said Scaloni.
“Messi is Messi, he’s the best.”
Before the tournament began, much of the talk was about whether Messi could ever land the one thing missing from his impressive list of accolades: an international trophy.
He’s won the Champions League four times, La Liga 10 times and the Copa del Rey six times with Barcelona, but nothing major with Argentina, who haven’t won anything since 1993.
Tuesday’s semi-final in Belo Horizonte looks tailor made for the Messi of old.
Brazil have yet to concede a goal in the competition but despite victories of 5-0 over Peru and 3-0 against Bolivia, they looked ponderous and lacking imagination in the 0-0 draws against Venezuela and Paraguay.
The semi-final promises to be a tight affair, in which a moment of Messi magic could be enough to settle it.
Argentina is waiting and praying for just such a moment.