World Cup hosts Russia kept up their free-scoring ways to move to the brink of a second round place with a 3-1 win over Egypt in their FIFA World Cup 2018 Group A match at the Saint Petersburg Stadium
Egypt’s second-half implosion was still to come but the look of weary frustration painted across Mohamed Salah’s face at the interval said it all. Whatever was to unfold at Krestovsky Stadium – ultimately almost certainly a swift World Cup exit via a chastening 3-1defeat for his country – Salah would be in no position to influence the outcome.
Having scattered defenses across England and Europe throughout a dizzying 2017-18 campaign that yielded 44 goals, here Salah was on the periphery. A powerless, forlorn victim of circumstance.
Since he tumbled to the Kiev turf locked together fatefully with Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos last month, there has been a relentless sense of frenzy around the Premier League Golden Boot winner. From the consistently conflicting medical updates over his rate of recovery from a shoulder injury to the perplexing numbers signing a “something must be done” petition with regards to Ramos who, as usual, revealed in the role of pantomime villain.
Wily Argentinian coach Hector Cuper pragmatically opted not to use Salah in Egypt’s opening 1-0 loss to Uruguay in Group A but now it was time to roll the dice. Egypt’s traveling army of fans has not been hard to see or hear in St Petersburg over recent days, repeatedly bursting into their hero’s Liverpool anthem with the gusto of long-time Kop season ticket holders.
Salah’s name was roared at kick-off but his most notable role during the opening stages was to station himself in a one-man defensive wall. Russia was firmly on top, with Denis Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin picking up from where they left off in the opening night evisceration of Saudi Arabia.
The PFA and FWA Player of the Year’s first touch came in the 11th minute. A tentative, uncertain prod under pressure. Possession was lost. On the opposite flank, Egypt’s left-winger Trezeguet cut inside and curled a menacing shot just wide. It felt like watching a mirror image of Salah’s favorite move. Maybe we were all just desperate for the real thing.
In the 28th minute, Yuri Zhirkov must have feared the worst when faced by Salah in the left-back position. A tamely chipped cross was the outcome. The merry runs at overmatched defenders Salah made his pastime this season were already clearly too much to ask but Zhirkov had to be alert to prevent him from turning in a tap-in at the back post.
The mind as sharp as the shoulder was undercooked. There was a thrash of frustration in the 35th minute when Salah volleyed an aimless square volley to the opposition on halfway and his night already looked a lost cause by the time he clipped narrowly wide, having got the ball clumsily stuck under his feet.
The second half was defined by a forward who could scarcely be more contrasting to the star attraction. At first glance, Artem Dzyuba has the dimensions and mobility of a wardrobe but this unashamedly old-fashioned striker is a cult hero for the home faithful.
His muscular presence helped persuade Egypt captain Ahmed Fathi to skew the ball into his own net in the 47th minute. Dzyuba’s ungainly clump into the right channel before the hour looked likely to end the attack but Egypt was scrambling and Bruno Fernandes and Cheryshev combined for a moment of the pure class generally lacking elsewhere.
Cheryshev is now in unlikely pursuit of a Golden Boot Salah will be unable to add to his collection and, after Dzyuba and his bustling brawn deliriously clattered home a third, the sight of Salah getting on the scoresheet was tinged with sadness.
The lithe movement to draw a desperate foul, the smooth strike to dispatch the penalty, the sujood celebration. All a tantalizing glance of what might have been at Russia 2018.