Those upset over the way Egypt lost to World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal charges may not be seeing the full picture; the benefits of Friday’s hotly anticipated friendly.
The short-term emotional thrill of winning a friendly – even one billed as ‘Salah vs. Ronaldo’ – will never outweigh the perks of actually playing it, regardless of the result.
That said, it wasn’t all good. Nobody wants to concede twice in injury time. But it’s a no-brainer to concede that the net result from the friendly in Zurich was positive for the Pharaohs.
1. Egypt showed it can compete
Whether it’s a surprise to anyone or not, assuming the team can compete against the world’s top teams is wholly different from actually going out and doing it; psychologically, physically, you name it.
There was a time in world football when teams more talented than this current Pharaohs crop would lose a match even before it kicked-off, because they didn’t think they had a chance.
Win, lose, or draw, Egypt showed yesterday that there is no reason for even the staunchest pessimist to assume the team will get destroyed at this summer’s World Cup, or that it would crumble against the tournament’s heavyweights.
2. Héctor Cúper is not changing
I used to get as frustrated as anyone watching Egypt play under their Argentine tactician. But I’ve come to accept that this is his style. It’s pointless to get angry about his approach after every single game and it surprises me that some still do.
We finally got a taste of Egyptian football under Cúper against a big-time opponent, and we saw the same guy we did throughout World Cup qualifying and the Africa Cup of Nations.
Right or wrong, Cúper is not suddenly going to have any tactical epiphanies or re-invent the wheel at age 62. Egypt will never play the silky-smooth attacking football they did under Hassan Shehata or Mahmoud El-Gohary while the former Inter Milan and Valencia leader is in charge.
Which leads us to the next takeaway… that might be ok.
3. While often exasperating, Egypt’s approach is pragmatic.
I’m often one of Cúper’s harshest critics, and certainly was during World Cup qualifying. Narrow, nail-biting victories even in front of 85,000 home fans, losses to Chad and Jordan… I was worried the approach was too scared to get us to the World Cup.
That said, I contended all along that if we do get to Russia, Cúper’s methodology may actually be the most realistic, pragmatic approach to competing and surviving there.
I think the Portugal match lent credence to the idea that Cúper’s strategy is Egypt’s best bet for the World Cup.
Sure, we may score more and win a few pats on the back if we went in guns-blazing and attacked a la Shehata and El-Gohary.
But, we’d also leak goals.
We love to talk about how ‘beautiful’ our football was against the likes of Brazil and Italy at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. And it was. But what nobody mentions is that we conceded seven goals in three matches there. That’s not good enough, especially when your jogo bonito – as the Brazilians call it – only results in four goals scored in those same three contests.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t care how pretty it looks as much as I care about the result.
And to be sure, playing conservatively does not guarantee better results than we had at that 2009 Confederations Cup, but I’d contend that it gives us a better shot at getting results in World Cup than does sending seven men into attack and playing ‘beautiful.’
4. It’s best for Egypt to fly under the radar
People who follow my work on websites or social media know that I’m neither ‘glass-half-full’ nor ‘glass-half-empty;’ neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Right or wrong, I consider myself a realist that calls things how I see them.
It may seem blasphemous that I did not actually want Egypt to win Friday’s match. I said it before the game, I think Egypt will lose but benefit greatly.
I wouldn’t have been upset if they did hold onto their lead, of course, but the aftermath would have been terribly worrisome just two-and-a-half months away from World Cup time.
The fanaticism would have overtaken social media, and mainstream media would be alight with headlines like “Can Egypt win the World Cup?” “Why not,” they’d argue. “They just beat the European champion and Ballon d’Or winner.”
Unless you’re a brand name team with endless streams of talent like Portugal, Brazil, Spain, France, etc., you’re always much better suited as a surprise package from which the world is not expected. That isn’t an opinion, it’s a historical fact.
Flying under the radar won’t guarantee success, but it will guarantee that Egypt’s charges play with less pressure and less to lose than they otherwise would.
5. We still don’t know Cúper’s Plan B
It’s been one of the biggest concerns surrounding the Egypt manager since he took over in 2015. What is Egypt’s plan if it goes down a goal? In the few instances we’ve seen it happen, the team has seemed to lack ideas or direction, often still relying on counter-attacks when the opposition has no interest in presenting opportunities for them.
Egypt went down a goal far too late in Friday’s contest to see any actionable reaction to the sudden deficit. In fact it seemed to give-up altogether, taking the restart and waiting a few seconds for the referee to blow the final whistle.
Hoping Egypt won’t ever be in that situation in Russia is a little unrealistic. But we certainly should be hoping that if and when it does happen, the team is more prepared than it has been in the past.
6. Everyone came out healthy
There are many world managers that would argue that this is the best thing that can come out of a friendly. No Egyptian players were injured against Portugal and if we can get to Russia fully healthy, there would be no greater blessing.
Taking Salah out in the 78th minute was the right thing to do. If he stayed in, scored again and got injured, would you be happy? Cúper would get torn a new one.
If Portugal wants to keep Ronaldo in for 96 minutes to salvage a friendly, they can have it.
7. Mahmoud Trezeguet is the X-factor
Those that follow the team closely already know how important Trezeguet is to Egypt’s plans. And yesterday, he showed once again that though Salah is certainly the star of the team, it could be Trezeguet that tips the scales in Egypt’s favor in Russia.
Trezeguet continues to show maturity in his game, displaying tremendous football IQ with everything from his positioning, to wining fouls in the right moments and places on the pitch, to elevating his game on the biggest stages.
He is the perfect compliment to Salah on the opposite wing.
8. Tarek Hamed is nails
This is a player who is often maligned, and I personally don’t understand it. There are teams that would kill to have a water-carrier with his attitude and toughness.
While most players were in long-sleeves and/or gloves, Hamed was the guy in short-sleeves, not blinking as he stared right through you, unfazed by his visibly cold breath.
Unsurprisingly, neither Ahmed Hegazy, Ali Gabr, nor Ahmed Fathy had time for your long-sleeve/glove bullshit either.
When Egypt needs to get physical, slow the pace of a match down, or commit a tactical foul while defending a quick counter, it’ll be Hamed that’s unafraid to do it.
Love him. Embrace him. Appreciate him.
9. We may finally have a serviceable backup goalkeeper
No, I don’t think he’s a revelation or the next coming of Essam El-Hadary, but Mohamed El-Shennawy’s performance was the most composed of any Egyptian keeper not named El-Hadary in an international match in recent memory.
He can’t be blamed for either goal, and almost made a miraculous save on Ronaldo’s equalizing header.
The sample size at this level is small, but right now? Give me Mohamed El-Shennawy over both his Ahmed namesake and Sherif Ekramy as El-Hadary’s primary backup.
10. We finally saw Egypt’s away kit
Following weeks of leaks showing the 2018 World Cup away kits of the teams Adidas will outfit in Russia, we finally got to see what Egypt’s looks like.
As expected, it’s neither imaginative nor unique, but I do like it more than the confusing checkerboard home shirt, at least.