A million dreams died an agonizing death as Russia comfortably beat Egypt 3-1 last night, effectively ending the latter’s World Cup campaign and their talismanic striker’s debut competition, who could not inspire Egypt to the comeback we were all secretly hoping for.
Set under the chilly night skies of the country’s cultural capital, this was always going to be an eventful face-off, with the hosts confident after their five-goal rout over Saudi, and the defiant little country from Africa coming with a plucky performance against Uruguay, who were easily the favourites to top the group.
Russia started the game with their typical 4-2-3-1 formation with two changes, with goalscorers Dzyuba and Cheryshev making the cut for Smolov, who was benched, and Dzagoev, who is likely to miss the remainder of the tournament. Golovin retained his spot after a stellar performance over the Saudi Arabians. However, all eyes were on Mohammed Salah, who was returning to the field for the first time since his unfortunate injury in Kiev. The Egyptian squad, however, remained unchanged otherwise and played in a cautious 4-2-3-1 formation.
The game started with the Egyptian kickoff, who went on to enjoy more possession for the next 10 minutes. The Russian defence was, however, solid, and most of the Egyptian movements were concentrated in their own half, with the occasional probing ball into the opposition half. Sadly, this was short-lived, as the Russian midfield and attack collectively put pressure on the Egyptian players, forcing them to make cheap errors and give the ball away. The first corner of the game arrived a mere 5 minutes into the game, with Ignashevich heading the ball harmlessly at El Shenawy, the Egyptian shot-stopper. Thirty seconds later, the Russians almost tasted first blood with Golovin stealing the ball off the defence and shooting just wide. This was just the beginning of a quarter-hour of intense Russian pressure, with the Egyptians constantly on the back foot.
Interestingly, the Egyptians were not cowed and managed to string a few attacks of their own, with Trezeguet almost doing his namesake proud with a wonderful curled effort that just went wide, and Salah dancing amongst the Russian defence, trying to find a weak spot. Salah was noticeably one of the more quieter players initially, a mere shadow of his prime Liverpool form. However, he had his moments, from orchestrating a very good counter-attacking move in the halfway mark of the first half to almost scoring just before the whistle blew, signalling the end of first half.
While the ball oscillated equally between the reds and the whites, it was the Russians who were more threatening, whipping in vicious crosses that kept the Egyptian defence and keeper on high alert throughout. The first half ended with both teams trudging back to the dugouts, not looking particularly happy with the outcome.
The deadlock broke in the early minutes of the second half in the most bizarre of manners. It all stemmed from El Shenawy’s decision to half-heartedly punch a meandering cross away. An equally half-hearted shot from Zobnin somehow found the back of the neck after the Telstar 18 made an unfortunate encounter with Fathy’s knee. Egypt tried to recover, but the nightmare was just beginning. Just three minutes after Salah’s shot at goal was blocked, Russia sealed the deal with Cheryshev slotting a slick one through the legs of the hapless keeper. This would be the 3rd goal for the winger, whose fairytale run continues as he equals Ronaldo’s tally of 3 goals, who plays tomorrow. The Egyptian response to the second goal was to substitute El Nenny off for Warda, but that wasn’t enough, for Dzyuba found the net yet again in the 62nd minute.
Egyptian hopes were rekindled for a brief period when Salah’s penalty struck the roof of the goal, but the Russians stood firm. Every Egyptian cross was met with a resolute Russian, every shot with stubborn arrogance and every effort with a hard-hitting counterattack.
The whistle blew for the last time, and as the Russians rejoiced what will be their first knockout entry in 32 years, the teary warriors of the Nile were left looking despondent, rueing chances squandered and costly errors. For it was the end of the road for them, and despite everything, the journey would still be a bittersweet memory.
All Images via BBC
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