It’s been a new dawn for Egyptian football. Their former coach Hector Cuper gave them spectacular highs: World Cup qualification for the first time since 1990, and AFCON qualification in 2017 for the first time since 2010 plus a final appearance to go with it.
Yet it had always been a marriage of convenience, with the football played a means to an end. However, when the end doesn’t justify the means the marriage of convenience results in separation. The World Cup was an embarrassment for Egypt and Cuper’s time at the helm quickly came crashing down.
The sexagenarian Javier Aguirre was appointed on a mandate to make Egyptian football attacking again. He has brought in his own coaching staff, which includes former Spain and Real Madrid full-back Michel Salgado, coupled with the entertainment package that the fans longed for.
Egypt qualified as runners-up from an easy group with their only loss coming on the first matchday – when Cuper was still at the wheel – to eventual group winners Tunisia. Then Aguirre’s attacking algorithm came in. They put six past Niger, four past Eswatini and saw off Tunisia in Alexandria with three.
A nation expects. This is Africa’s most successful national team. Anything less than winning the whole thing will be an incontrovertible failure. With the quality of their team and a 12th man better than any other in Africa it will be a matter of whether the team can cope with the expectations placed upon them.
Egypt are likely to field a 4-2-3-1 formation. It does mean a suspect defence that was over-protected in Cuper’s time will be exposed, but the players do have more freedom to express themselves. The full-backs actually march past the halfway line, meaning a tall figure like the striker Ahmed Hassan Kouka can receive the deliveries of Aston Villa’s Ahmed El Mohamady.
The holding midfielders are also less hindered in movement. In more advanced positions, Mohamed Salah, darting in from the right flank, is of course important and will keep defences more than occupied on his own. On the other flank, Mahmoud Hassan Trezeguet has his own dose of quality, as does the sharp-witted Abdallah El Said as an offensive midfielder.
The attacking artillery – And by that we don’t only mean Mohamed Salah. Salah now arrives at AFCON as a genuine world superstar. It helps that, unlike the last AFCON, the space he will create will allow others to flourish and he will have the support of the full-backs. That is good news for all the attackers and in fact they have shown that scoring goals and creating chances won’t be a problem on a normal day at the office.
The Achilles’ Heel
Error-prone defence – More often that not, teams with shoddy defending do not win AFCONs. Defences with holes can quickly unravel at tournaments, and they regularly do at major tournaments. Under Cuper Egypt were too defensive but under Aguirre they have probably gone too far in the other direction. Egypt fans will be hoping Aguirre tightens the screws just a little or comes up with a cunning plan, especially when they meet some of the tournament’s more menacing attacks.
Mohamed Salah. If we have to tell you why then African football really is dead.
The Hipster’s Choice
Al Ahly had some dark times after their epoch in the noughties. A boyhood Al Ahly fan, Walid Soliman has been one of the bandieras who has been with them through thick and thin, at times single-handedly dragging them with his specularity and intrepid runs. The 34-year-old is fitter than ever and his commitment and busy manner on the pitch makes him an easy player for fans and neutrals to love.
African teams usually recruits coaches about a decade after their heyday. Meet Javier Aguirre. Although he has little silverware to show for it, the 60-year-old is one of Mexico’s most successful coaches ever. The biggest notch on his CV is three years spent coaching Atletico Madrid where he whipped a chubby, fresh-faced teenager called Sergio Aguero into shape.
Egypt. Hosting AFCON. Winning it is the bare minimum. And I think, if the defence can hold up, they may just do it.