Mohamed Salah injury saga cannot mask Egypt's problems at Afcon 2023

Relations between the Pharaohs and their star player appear to be at breaking point

Egyptian fans' anger as injured Salah heads back to Liverpool for treatment

Egyptian fans' anger as injured Salah heads back to Liverpool for treatment
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If Egypt are to win the 34th Africa Cup of Nations, they will do so having exhausted Plan A, most of their Plan B, carried to an unlikely triumph on the wild, unpredictable winds that have swept through the tournament.

The Pharaohs, installed among the initial favourites but yet to win a fixture on their nail-biting way into the knockout phase, said farewell to captain and lodestar Mohamed Salah, who has flown to Liverpool, his club, for treatment on a muscle injury of undetermined gravity.

He departed amid scathing criticism from former colleagues and the Egyptian public. There is a strong possibility that unless his colleagues progress through their last-16 match next Tuesday and, beyond that, past a quarter-final, Salah will not return.

There are further setbacks. Goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy, perhaps their next most totemic player, has learnt that the shoulder injury he sustained just before the final whistle of the 2-2 draw with Cape Verde that left Egypt hanging onto second place in their group, is a dislocation, ruling him out of the rest of Afcon.

Manager Rui Vitoria and his staff are also urgently diagnosing whatever has afflicted the team’s defensive shape and very identity. In three Afcon matches so far, Egypt have conceded six goals; in three previous Cup of Nations excursions in their entirety – 17 games, including two losing finals and five tranches of extra-time – they let in just five.

“We have defensive problems,” acknowledged Vitoria. “We need to improve our performance in all aspects.”

In all three of their 2-2 draws in Abidjan, Egypt have let leads slip, twice in the case of the see-saw contest with Ghana. If there is far less embarrassment in scraping a single point from the likes of Mozambique, as Egypt did only through Salah’s stoppage-time penalty on their opening match day, or Cape Verde, who finished top of Group B, than there might have been at the outset of this tournament of giant-killers, this is still a diminished, uncertain Egyptian campaign.

Above all, the Salah absence has dominated, a saga thoroughly mismanaged. When he pulled up with discomfort in his thigh shortly before half time of the match against Ghana, it looked ominous.

But he walked off the pitch with reasonable mobility. The initial prognosis was for a two-match recuperation with the captain treated on site, a leader absent off the field until a potential quarter-final but present in the camp, there to lead.

Jurgen Klopp, Salah’s manager at his club, Liverpool, then made it known that the player, the club and the Egyptian Football Association had agreed to Salah undergoing his recovery in Liverpool.

The potential comeback date had been extended to a possible Afcon semi-final on February 7, at the soonest, with Salah’s representative stating that the injury was more serious that initially thought.

The backlash has been severe – against Liverpool, the Egyptian Football Association and against Salah.

“I didn't think it was right for Liverpool, via any intermediary, to speak about this,” said Vitoria.

Former Egypt captains, Ahmed Hassan and Wael Gomaa, legendary players from the Pharaohs’ historic sequence of three successive Afcon triumphs up until 2010, slammed a failure of leadership from Egypt’s decision-makers and from the captain.

“Salah made a mistake, he takes part of the responsibility,” said Gomaa, who was on the team’s management staff at the last Afcon, where Egypt lost the final on penalties to Senegal.

“What’s happened around the injury is an insult to the national team, and its status in Africa – big mistakes from start to finish from everybody involved.”

“He is the captain, he should stay with the team no matter what,” said Ahmed Hassan, whose 184 international appearances, up to 2011, make him Egypt’s most capped player. “He could have had someone from Liverpool’s medical staff come to be with him at the competition.”

A fit Salah would have reached a century of caps had he steered Egypt all the way to a third final of the four Afcons he has taken part in. But he leaves a significant marker on his abbreviated campaign.

Salah set up what looked like an immensely promising start, assisting Mostafa Mohamed’s second-minute goal on match day one against Mozambique and converting the injury-time penalty, at 2-1 down, to grasp what has turned out to be a crucial point.

As it was, the shakedown to join upstarts Cape Verde in the next round was nerve-jangling, with Ghana, who finished third in Group B on two points, collapsing from 2-0 up against Mozambique in the 90th minute to a 2-2 draw on Monday.

Earlier in the afternoon, hosts Ivory Coast had been thrashed 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea, leaving the Ivorians on three points from three group games, behind the Equatoguineans and Nigeria and awaiting other results to see whether they progress as one of the four best third-placed finishers, who go into the last 16 along with the top two from each group.

In this topsy-turvy next phase, Egypt will meet the runners-up of Group F, whose final standings will be clear on Wednesday, with Morocco, DR Congo, Zambia and Tanzania all potentially ending up in second place, and remaining in San Pedro.

The coastal city is regarded as an agreeable location by the Group F teams who have spent the last two weeks there, either in the purpose-built athletes’ village or, in the case of Morocco, in a high-spec hotel complex overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Vitoria welcomes Egypt’s change of scene. “Moving venue could have a positive impact after two weeks in Abidjan,” said the coach, although even the 200-mile journey to the new site was being framed around the suffocating Salah controversy.

“Because we have to travel to a different city, because of the temperatures, perhaps it makes more sense Salah should have a place for recovery he can go to straight away.”

Yet as long as El Shenawy, also in recovery, remains with the squad in Ivory Coast, the suspicion will be that a different, unique standard has been applied to Salah’s situation and priority given to the interests of Premier League title-chasing Liverpool.

Updated: January 24, 2024, 6:45 AM