Russia could easily swipe Saudi Arabia aside in the opening match in Moscow. Vladimir Putin and 81 000 supporters in the Luzhniki Stadium watched the Green Falcons fall apart at the hands of the red shirts with the benefit of playing at their home ground. Russia were favourites ahead of kick-off but a 5-0 result was still unexpected. It was the biggest win by a home nation in an opening match in the tournament since 1934.
Egypt on the other hand, lost their opening game. It was a harsh blow to the Egyptian campaign when Jose Gimenez netted for Uruguay in the 90th minute. After keeping Suarez and Cavani relatively quiet for 90 minutes, there’s an argument the Pharaohs had deserved the point they looked likely to get. But with the threat of their main monarch sat firmly on his bum on the bench, they came across slightly toothless in the third half.
When the two teams walk onto the pitch in the Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg tonight, Russia will once again have the pressure of being favourites. All the expectations of winning, of advancing, of staying top of the group. And they will walk onto the pitch full of confidence, of belief, certain of putting Salah in their pocket.
They’ve proved that they can handle the pressure once and they might well do it again, although Egypt are a tougher opposition than Saudi Arabia.
Salah, too, has felt the pressure of carrying the faith of a whole country on his shoulders, when he put the 95th minute penalty against Congo in the back of the net, sending Egypt to the World Cup for the first time since 1990. The pressure didn’t get to him then, his shoulders strong, secure, unfazed. Things might be different now, however. His shoulder is literally struggling, fragile from the “judo tackle” from Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final.
And they expect much from him, the Egyptians. Back home in Egypt, schools are named after him, his face is painted on buildings, some restaurants are offering discounts to anyone sharing his name.
But it’s not just love for Salah anymore, and you know you’re doing something right when rival supporters can’t stop going on about you.
Because the tone on social media has changed. Where rival fans were admiring Salah at the start of the season, the mood turned sour as Liverpool progressed through all the stages of the Champions League. When the Reds reached the final, the irrational hatred was complete. Twitter has been full of United Tottenham City Everton supporters, uniting and photoshopping joint badges. Slagging off Salah for having the audacity to cry as his shoulder was dislocated and he had to come off – 30 minutes into the most important match of his career. They’ve posted pictures of him on the bench in Russia, laughing as his teammates were beaten by the South American side.
He’s proper got under their skin and it’s boss. Well done Mohamed.
But the man is still adored. 96 million Egyptians. Around the same number of Liverpool supporters worldwide. All itching for him to be named in the line-up facing Russia.
The 90 minutes against Uruguay only highlighted the importance and urgency of getting the ‘Egyptian King’ back in the team if they are to be any threat in Group A. They’re very much a one man team – but the man has proved he’s good enough to carry them.