Egypt forward Mohamed Salah is the name on everyone’s lips as Russia attempt to virtually secure their place in the knockout stages of the World Cup in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday night.
Fears that poor performances from the home side could dampen enthusiasm in the host nation were blown away by a 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the opening game.
The seven-time African champions will pose a much tougher task, but a lot will depend upon Salah’s fitness.
Liverpool winger Salah has not featured since leaving the field in tears early in the Champions League final just over three weeks ago after landing heavily on his left shoulder and had to watch from the bench as Egypt lost 1-0 to Uruguay in their opening game.
Salah has been declared 100 per cent fit by Egypt’s team doctor and his agent, leaving little doubt he will be thrown back into action.
“Salah participated in training with his team-mates for the entire session and he is ready to play against Russia according to technical staff,” Egypt’s team manager Ihab Leheta told FIFA.com.
Egypt coach Hector Cuper’s decision not to risk Salah against Uruguay may have been influenced by the fact his side held out for 89 minutes before conceding to Jose Gimenez, by which time the Argentine had made all three of his substitutions.
“Russia’s game is fateful and difficult because of our defeat against Uruguay,” said Leheta. “Winning is our only choice”.
If fully fit, the sight of Salah, who scored 44 goals in his debut season at Anfield, will be a cause of concern for the Russians.
Meanwhile, worries Russia could become just the second host nation to bow out of the World Cup at the group stage after a seven-game winless run ahead of the tournament have been alleviated by a perfect start.
With Uruguay favourites to top the group, though, Russia are keen not to have to rely on getting something from their final group game against the two-time former world champions.
“The second game will be our most important one in the group stage,” said Russia’s deputy prime minister and former football federation president Vitaly Mutko after attending Russia’s training session on Sunday.
“In the first match, everyone saw how much the players cared.
“If we play up to our level, I don’t see any problems,” he added.
Denis Cheryshev was Russia’s hero against Saudi Arabia as he came off the bench to score twice.
The Villarreal winger accepted it will be a more “interesting” clash if Salah is fit.
“If he’s not there, does that mean our task becomes easy? Not at all,” he told FIFA.com “If he plays, it will be hard, but more interesting.
“He’s one of the best and you always want to compete with the best and win.”
Russia will be without one of their key players, with Alan Dzagoev expected to miss the rest of the tournament after damaging his hamstring in Thursday’s 5-o win over Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Salah has been declared 100 per cent fit by Egypt’s team doctor and his agent.
This will be the first ever encounter between Russia and Egypt
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia are unbeaten against African opposition at the World Cup (W2 D1).
This includes a 6-1 win against Cameroon in 1994, with Oleg Salenko scoring five goals
Egypt have never beaten European opposition at the World Cup, drawing two and losing two of their four games
Russia’s 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia was the second biggest ever by a host nation in their opening match at a World Cup tournament, after Italy vs USA in 1934 (7-1)
Since the split up of the USSR, Russia have never reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in three appearances (1994, 2002, 2014).
They have finished third in their group in each of those three editions
Russia (5) have already scored more goals in this tournament than they did in both 2014 (2) and 2002 (4), their last two appearances at the World Cup
No African team has played as many World Cup games without winning a single one than Egypt (D2 L3)