Group A of the World Cup is wide open. It includes host Russia and perennial World Cup overachiever Uruguay. It also has two teams from the Middle East — an extremely weak Saudi Arabia side, and Egypt, one of the tournament’s most interesting teams.
Egypt’s fate will be determined by just how far their one superstar, Mohamed Salah, can carry them. Salah is having an unbelievable season, and with a World Cup, he might be the first player in more than a decade to seriously challenge Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for Player of the Year awards in world soccer.
Unlike Any Other Winger
It’s impossible to overstate just how good Salah’s year has been. In his first Premier League season, he leads the league in goals with 29, five more than Harry Kane, and nine more than Sergio Aguero in third. He also has nine assists, tied for fifth most in the Premier League. He has taken Liverpool from a good team, to a great one. They’re currently in the semifinals of the Champions League, where they are favored to get past Roma (coincidentally Salah’s old team) and reach the finals, a feat which was close to unthinkable a year ago.
Salah plays as a very attacking right winger. This allows him to terrorize defenders by cutting in onto his favored left foot to either line up shots or passes. One of the things that makes Salah stand out, however, is that while many goal-scoring wingers spend a lot of time cutting inside to shoot from distance, Salah takes relatively few bad shots. He’s only averaging 4.33 shots per 90 minutes of play. A remarkably small number given that he’s averaging 0.78 expected goals per game. What sets Salah apart isn’t so much his ability to cut inside from the right wing and get shots, it’s how good the shots are when he gets them.
With Egypt, Salah also sometimes plays more centrally as a forward. On Liverpool he has the luxury of being part of a dynamic front three. For his national team he is the standout star. It’s easier for defenses to focus on Salah when he’s playing for the Pharoahs, and when he plays on the wing he risks being taken out of the match by better teams who will simply deny the rest of Egypt’s players chances to get him the ball. Playing centrally can mitigate that problem, although not entirely remove it. Salah’s ability to influence games will be the key question when it comes to who progresses from Group A.
Generally speaking, singularly great players aren’t enough to propel teams through tournaments. Then again, most players aren’t coming off seasons as singularly great as Salah’s has been. Despite the buckets of goals Salah has poured in this season, and the way he helped propel Liverpool to their deepest Champions League run in over a decade, Egypt remain underdogs to progress.
The Path to the Knockout Rounds
The Pharoahs’ opening match against Uruguay will be key. The South American side tends to play extremely conservatively and will likely be happy to defend deep in their own territory and make sure the Egyptian star gets no space to stretch his legs into.
If Salah can wriggle his way through Uruguay the way he’s managed to bamboozle defenses across Europe this season, then Egypt will likely find their way into the knockout stages. If not, then Salah will have to carry his team to a result against Russia in front of a hostile home crowd. If Egypt can manage even just two draws in those first two games they will have a chance of advancing as they take on Saudi Arabia in their final group stage match.
Egypt might be an underdog to make the knockout rounds, but betting against Mohammed Salah isn’t a good idea. It hasn’t worked for anybody in the past year, don’t expect it to start working now.
Top Photo: Egypt’s Mo Salah in action.