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Winners and Losers from Egypt’s AFCON 2017 campaign
Cuper’s team fell just one match short of picking up from Egypt’s last AFCON appearance, with some players impressing and others disappointing enroute to the final.
After winning the African Cup of Nations 3 times in a row in 2006, 2008 and 2010 under Hassan Shehata, few expected to see Egypt fail to even qualify for the competition for 7 years. But the reality is that teams often have to go through this transitional phase as football careers are short and turnaround is relatively sudden, especially in national team squads.
However, Egypt’s new generation of players, mixed in with some of the current veterans in the squad were able to surprise the football world with an effective and organized defensive tournament performance that carried them to the final of the 2017 AFCON.
Most fans would generally consider the tournament campaign a success as few would have had Egypt in the final before its start, although not all players benefitted individually from the campaign the same way the national team did as a whole. As we approach the end of the season, we have a better idea of who the true “winners” and “losers” of the tournament were.
If you were to ask fans what their starting Egypt XI would be, the majority would have Ramadan Sobhi as one of their first names in their team. Hector Cuper had different ideas however. Preferring Mohamed Trezeguet on the left wing due to his tireless defensive work up and down the touchline, Sobhi featured mostly off the bench and played in only 4 out of Egypt’s 6 matches.
That’s not to say that Sobhi didn’t benefit from the tournament. Upon arriving back in Stoke in February, Mark Hughes was impressed with Sobhi’s physical state: “In terms of match fitness, he is probably in as good a shape as he has been during his time here, after playing for Egypt over the past couple of weeks”. The competition for his left-wing position in Egypt clearly pushed him to train harder and his manager was taking notice. After barely playing in the first half of the season with Stoke City, Sobhi went on to start a series of matches until the beginning of April putting in some wonderful performances (including a match-winning assist against Crystal Palace) and earning high praise from both Hughes and Stoke City fans.
The debate on whether Egyptian footballers should transfer abroad or play locally in the Egyptian Premier league has been raging on for decades now. Warda probably has a clearer idea in his mind of the answer though. After starting off his career slowly in Egypt at Al Ahly and then on loan at Ittihad, Warda enjoyed a fruitful campaign with Panetolikos. Attracting interest from clubs abroad, Warda ended up earning himself a move to one of the biggest clubs in Greece at Panathanaikos just in time for AFCON 2017. His transfer was justified by his performances during the tournament. Although failing to get on the scoresheet , Warda was a trusted member Cuper’s squad and added quality and depth to his offensive options. His contribution was summed up as he scored Egypt’s last penalty during the tense semifinal shoot-out with Burkina Faso.
The legendary Essam El-Hadary continued to defy all odds as he proved that athleticism wasn’t the only trait that a goalkeeper needed to be successful between the sticks. At the tender age of 45, El-Hadary was a mainstay in a back 5 that did not concede a single goal in Egypt’s group stage or quarterfinal matches. Although he doesn’t have the same type of authority when he comes rushing off his line to collect crosses, El-Hadary captained the side and compensated with his leadership and communication which instilled a sense of confidence and self-belief in the squad. Few will forget his performance against Burkina Faso for many years as he saved the final two penalties to send Egypt to the final. With the emergence of Ahmed El-Shennawy in recent years, El-Hadary almost completely found himself out of the national team picture. Suddenly, thoughts have surfaced wondering if El-Hadary would be Egypt’s #1 during the the 2018 World Cup should Egypt qualify.
Ahmed Hassan “Koka”
In recent seasons Ahmed Hassan “Koka” has without doubt been one of the most successful Pharaohs playing abroad and has rightly earned himself the reputation of a truly dangerous target man. With Bassem Morsy out of form and excluded from the national team squad, the tournament was a perfect opportunity for Koka to fill the void up top and finally silence the critics of his performances with the national team. As fate had it though, a mix of is lack of suitablity for the striker’s role in Cuper’s tactical system and injury problems left the young striker disappointed. Cuper has generally preferred forward that can quickly transition quickly from a zonal shape in his defensive half to the opposition’s goal rather than a goalpoacher. Although, Marwan Mohsen was trusted with the striker’s role for much of the beginning of the campaign, his game never suited the team either. Koka was ultimately ruled out for the rest of the tournament after the quarterfinals match against Morocco with pelvic inflammation. Featuring only a few times since March, Koka has been ruled out again after undergoing abdominal surgery.
The experiment with Marwan Mohsen at striker came as a surprise to many as his club form with Al Ahly wasn’t overwhelming nor was he seen to be tactically suitable to play in Cuper’s system. With the lack of forward options, many fans expected to see Kahraba start in a more advanced role after his fine performances in Saudi Arabia for Al-Ittihad. However, after scoring a late winner against Tunisia in a pre-AFCON friendly, Mohsen seemed to solidify his place in the team. After a frustrating opening match draw vs Mali where Mohsen seemed to miss at least 2 clear chances, the striker never really regained his confidence. Cuper continued to put his trust in Mohsen as he started him in Egypt’s first 4 matches. Unfortunately, his season came to a cruel end during the quarterfinals against Morocco as he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The only positive is Al Ahly were covered by FIFA’s Club Protection Programme which ensures that FIFA pays Mohsen’s wages due to his injury being suffered on national team duty.