Egypt may have an unblemished record after two games at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations, but, if their victories over Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo are anything to go by, their run to an eighth African title won’t be plain-sailing.
Javier Aguirre’s side have made hard work of their Group A opponents, prompting them to rely on individual brilliance to carry them to the top of the group.
However, somewhat unexpectedly, talisman Mohamed Salah has been slightly off the pace and the host nation’s standout attacking player has been Mahmoud 'Trezeguet' Hassan.
At the last two international tournaments – the 2018 World Cup in Russia and 2017 Nations Cup in Gabon – the Liverpool star was involved in six of his country’s seven goals goals (four goals and two assists), so the expectation was that he’d, yet again, bear most of the responsibility at the biennial showpiece.
Be that as it may, Trezeguet has shone despite his side underwhelming for large periods of their matches. Cup competitions are remembered for clutch moments, a fact that clearly hasn’t been lost on the Kasimpasa winger given his productivity.
His fine finish which secured a 1-0 against the Warriors in the competition’s curtain raiser will be replayed for years to come, while the amazing run for Salah’s goal on Wednesday night arguably bettered his match-winning heroics against Sunday Chidzambwa’s troops.
Perhaps his crucial contribution to Egypt’s cause shouldn’t be so surprising, though. Before the tournament commenced, the sleek winger’s motivation to play his part in assisting the nation rule the continent for the first time in nine years was apparent.
“The Afcon title should not depart Egypt by any means. This is the responsibility of the players, fans, media and the entire Egyptian system,” he began. "I know that the Egyptian fans count on me a lot in this tournament and I hope to repay their trust.
"I am used to this sort of challenge because I grew up at Al Ahly.”
The attacker has backed up those words on the pitch to dig his country out of tight holes.
Aguirre’s team haven’t had a pleasant time so far, often struggling to control games against supposedly inferior opposition. While the assertion isn’t meant to disrespect Zimbabwe or the DRC, it has to be said the North Africans' struggles could come to haunt them against the better sides in the competition.
Their lack of control and decline in intensity after half-time of their games has bothered the Mexican boss too, with the 60-year-old revealing his concern after Wednesday’s 2-0 success against Florent Ibenge’s team.
"I'm trying to find the reason of this drop in the second half," Aguirre told journalists in his post-match news conference. "We have to play the full 90 minutes with the same performance."
The experienced coach had promised an improved performance against the Leopards, but the final score was harsh on the Central Africans as it didn’t reflect what transpired during the encounter.
While Chidzambwa’s team huffed and puffed, they didn’t look like scoring, even though they found themselves in decent openings in the final third, which they couldn’t capitalise upon.
The DRC, on the other hand, hit the woodwork on two occasions in the opening half – before Ahmed Elmohamady opened the scoring and a few minutes prior to Salah’s strike. After the break, they had a staggering 14 shots at goal to Egypt’s four. While most of those efforts were blocked by Ahmed Hegazi and co., their tendency to cede the initiative might be unsustainable going forward.
Preparations for the game were also marred by off-field issues regarding Amr Warda, who was axed from the side for disciplinary reasons after allegations over his behaviour sprang up on social media.
When pressed about the winger in his pre-match press conference, Aguirre claimed there were no issues with the Atromitos Athens star.
"There is no problem with Warda," the coach asserted. "I don't know anything about the news of excluding him from the camp."
The popular winger was then expelled from the squad after the coach’s comments, but after vocal support from members of the squad, notably Elmohamady, Salah and Trezeguet, has been telling, and he has subsequently been allowed back into the fold.
The results may be coming, but the means have been imperfect, and one suspects the host nation's less-than-ideal methods may see them falter on the road to another title on home soil.
The hosts have won the continental showpiece three times of the four occasions they’ve welcomed the continent and, having reached the final two years ago, feel providence is in their favour.
However, in those intervening years, the competition has improved as well. The pair of businesslike Senegal, who have built a better side under Aliou Cisse, and Herve Renard’s talented Morocco ought to better their quarter-final performances in Gabon.
Nigeria, under Gernot Rohr, are also back in the big time after missing out on the last two finals since winning it in 2013. The Super Eagles may not be the most entertaining outfit, but their effectiveness means they will be a force to be reckoned with in the knockout stages.
If Aguirre’s side are to win the competition, they’ll surely have to earn it!
Before the Nations Cup kicked off, many wondered who’d step up for the Pharaohs if Salah wasn’t firing on all cylinders, owing to their extreme reliance on his output in recent tournaments.
Fortunately, Trezeguet seems to have picked up the gauntlet.
The Kasimpasa wideman has answered the call and is seemingly primed to take responsibility for their progress. He is Egypt’s joker at this finals… their ace in the hole.