AFCON: Early exit awaiting Egypt as Salah enters Messi territory?

 | January 17 | 

7 mins read

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A disappointing 2-2 draw against Mozambique in Egypt’s first Africa Cup of Nations game has raised more questions than answers with the Pharaohs. The North African outfit were installed as one of the main candidates to lift the trophy for a record eighth time in Abidjan next month, but the early signs are far from positive.

Famed for their defensive discipline, the concession of two goals in the space of three minutes against a country ranked 111th by FIFA - 78 places below the Egyptians - has done little to raise confidence in the side. By the end, Egypt could even count themselves fortunate to escape Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny with a point on Sunday, requiring a penalty from Mohamed Salah in the 97th minute to do so.

Egypt face Ghana next in what was billed as a battle for top spot, but the traditional African powerhouses will meet in the Ivorian capital on Thursday (KO, 20:00) occupying third and fourth in Group B respectively, and defeat for either side would spell big trouble for their qualification hopes. Can Salah stamp his authority and stake a claim for Egypt as one of the frontrunners to win the 2023 AFCON?

Egypt 2023 AFCON Betting Odds:

  • Egypt to win Group B @ EVS
  • Egypt to win AFCON @ 11/1
  • Mohamed Salah to finish top goalscorer @ 11/2

A goal and an assist - wasn’t Sunday just another day at the office for Salah? You could be forgiven for taking a cursory glance at the statistics from the Group B stalemate and assuming the 31-year-old had picked up from where he left off for Liverpool at the start of the month, when he scored twice and set up Cody Gakpo in a 4-2 win over Newcastle United.

However, it wasn’t quite the vintage Salah we had seen against the Magpies. His assist for Mostafa Mohamed’s second-minute opener was a mis-kicked effort at goal, while his late equaliser came from the penalty spot. That’s not to downplay these contributions - he had positioned himself in a presentable area for the first goal while the pressure of a spot-kick cannot be underestimated - but the statistics do not tell the full story.

Salah had four shots on Sunday, but his first - the assist was not registered as one - only came in the 50th minute, and the other three were in the 82nd, 91st and 97th minutes. Two of his efforts came outside of the box while his conversion from 12 yards was the only shot on target out of the four, so is it the failure of head coach Rui Vitoria and his players in not getting Salah into dangerous positions to score?

Instead, it seems that Salah has assumed the role of creator, something he has become increasingly accustomed to at Liverpool. The Premier League’s top assist-maker (alongside Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins) created four chances for his teammates against Mozambique - no player in the competition has created more in the opening round of fixtures [The Analyst]. His xA (expected assists) against the Mambas was 0.33, ranking him sixth in the metric, while five recoveries showed his commitment to win the ball back for his side. Suffice to say, Salah is already making an impact on the tournament, but will Egypt’s chances of progressing to the latter stages be hindered by a failure to feed their main man close to goal?

Egypt to win Group B at Africa Cup of Nations at EVSThe argument for utilising Salah in a deeper role is that their midfield is lacking creativity, with Hamdi Fathi and Mohamed Elneny more proficient in deeper areas of the pitch, snuffing out danger. Zizo, meanwhile, has put up double figures for goals and assists in the Egyptian Premier League for the past two seasons but hasn’t been able to translate his form to the international scene. Plus, arguably Egypt’s second-most important player is centre-forward Mostafa Mohamed, who scored eight goals in Ligue 1 for Nantes last season and is already on six this term. His performance against Mozambique certainly impressed ex-Nigeria defender Efan Ekoku, who told Betfred:

“Mostafa Mohamed certainly, after scoring a fantastic goal, a lovely turn and swivel in the opening game - he’s a guy to watch. I’ve been impressed with his movement.”

Efan Ekoku, talking to Betfred

There’s scope for improvement in his game, however. Egypt were a goal up when Salah picked up the ball in the middle of his own half and immediately played a delicious through ball between two defenders for Mostafa Mohamed to latch onto. The 26-year-old was a fair distance out but was through on goal if his second touch hadn’t diverted him into a wider position, which narrowed his angle down, and he could only fire his shot straight at the goalkeeper. If he had found the net there, in the 10th minute, who knows what the score could have been.

Egypt to win 2023 Africa Cup of Nations at 11-1It feels like Salah is at a crossroads in his international career in the same way Lionel Messi was with Argentina. The Argentine endured heartbreak after heartbreak with his national team, losing three Copa America finals and one World Cup final before winning the former in 2021 and the latter in 2022. Salah himself is yet to lift a major honour with his country after losing two AFCON finals, the most recent of which - against Senegal in 2022 - saw him lose out to then-Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane, who scored the winning spot-kick in a penalty shoot-out. 

Like Messi, who, prior to his heroics in Brazil and Qatar, was held up unfavourably in Argentina compared to Diego Maradona, Salah has been the victim of a previous player’s success. Mohamed Aboutrika’s name is still regularly brought up when Egypt fail at the final hurdle of a tournament. The four-time Egyptian Player of the Year played leading roles in 2006 and 2008 as the Pharaohs secured back-to-back AFCON trophies before making it a hat-trick in 2010. Aboutrika never even played in Europe, let alone won the Premier League and Champions League, yet it feels like Salah will never truly capture Egyptian hearts like him until he lifts an international trophy of his own.

So, is the 2023 AFCON Salah’s last shot at international glory? The dates for the next Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco remain unknown amid a potential clash with the new-look Club World Cup, which is set to take place in mid-2025. Salah could be in his mid-thirties by the time African football’s showpiece event next rolls around, and it remains to be seen whether he will still be playing international football then, or at anywhere near his current level.

Egypt’s squad in Ivory Coast is hardly brimming with big names, yet the Pharaohs have rarely had the most star-studded line-up at the finals. The onus, therefore, is on Salah this year to provide the magic in attack and raise the level of those around him.

The chance to right the wrongs of Sunday starts on Thursday, as Egypt face an under-pressure Ghana. The Black Stars are in turmoil having lost 2-1 to Cape Verde in their opening game, and will arrive into this fixture as the underdogs. The opportunity is in the hands of Salah and co to win and reassert themselves as favourites to triumph from Group B and set up a round of 16 tie with the runner-up of Group F, likely to be DR Congo or Zambia.

From there, who knows how far Egypt can advance, but the eyes of the continent and more will be on Salah this week to showcase the abilities that have made him a star of European club football.

Mohamed Salah to finish top goalscorer at 2023 Africa Cup of Nations at 11-2Check out the rest of our AFCON Betting Tips here.

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