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Do-or-die as Pharaohs seek to end Nations Cup drought
‘Back-to-back-to-back’… ‘three-peat’… fond phrases for Egypt fans, synonymous with the team’s unprecedented three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations titles between 2006 and 2010.
But, by Wednesday of next week, those expressions may take on a much less enviable meaning; three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations finals without Egypt, the tournament’s most successful side.
That’s the once-unthinkable prospect the Pharaohs face heading into the final two matches of their 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. If the team is seeking a silver lining however, it may have one in the fact that its fate is in its own hands, as wins against Senegal and Tunisia would secure qualification to next year’s finals – which will now take place in Equatorial Guinea.
Qualifying for the 30th edition of African football’s showpiece event without winning both matches is also possible for Egypt, but would be unlikely if the team doesn’t at least win Saturday’s home tie with Senegal. A win at home and a draw against Group G-leaders Tunisia in Monastir on Wednesday could do the trick.
Egypt, decimated by injuries heading into the stretch run, could be buoyed by Tunisia having already secured qualification thanks to its goalless draw with Group G cellar-dwellers Botswana in Gaborone on Friday. The Carthage Eagles may be the less desperate side when they meet the Pharaohs mid-week.
Headlining Egypt’s plethoric list of wounded regulars is Ahly striker Amr Gamal, net-minding teammate Sherif Ekramy, and Zamalek left-back Mohamed Abdel-Shafy.
Despite the setbacks, manager Shawky Gharib appears to be unfazed.
“We are afraid of no one. We have nothing in mind but winning all three points [against Senegal] and continuing down the path of the African Nations Cup finals,” he told reporters.
“I’m happy with the mental state and fitness level of the team.
“We’re fully aware of the importance of this match; its importance to the fans and its importance to us,” he added.
Gharib does have some concerns, however.
“We have no other choice but to win against Senegal to continue our African campaign successfully, but at the same time we must tighten-up our defense.
“We are also concentrating with our strikers to find attacking solutions that don’t affect our defense negatively.”
Gharib is considering some lineup shuffles, including deploying right-back Ahmed Fathi on the left flank.
“[Fathi] might be played as a left-back in our upcoming two games against Senegal and Tunisia,” Gharib said.
For his part, Fathi appeared more focused on the task at hand than precisely where on the pitch he’ll be.
“It’s a difficult match but we’re focused. Our goal is qualification, and we have two matches to do it starting Saturday.”
Among the notables expected to shoulder the load up-front are veteran talisman Emad Meteb – making his return to the national fold after an extended absence – and surprise Egyptian Premier League top-scorer Arafa El-Sayed.
“God willing, we’ll get the win on Saturday and bring joy to all Egyptians,” Meteb said in a press conference on Wednesday.
Though relatively healthy, Senegal too are a bit short-handed. The Teranga Lions will be without the services of Beşiktaş striker Demba Ba. The former Chelsea front-man was said to be injured, but recently featured for his club before slamming Senegal manager Alain Giresse for not including him.
“I am fit for the Egypt clash,” he told Africa Top Sport last week.
“Giresse asked me about my injury and I told him that I am fully recovered. I am really surprised with his decision.”
Tickets for Saturday’s do-or-die tussle are sold out, though attendance will be limited to 20,000 by a self-imposed crowd ban.
The top two teams in each group will qualify for the finals along with the best third-placed team among all groups. If qualifying ended today, Egypt would be through as the best third-place finisher.
Egypt has won three of its last four against Senegal, with all three victories coming at home.