Egypt headed into their match against Russia knowing nothing less than a win would do following their disheartening late loss to Uruguay late last week. Russia, on the other hand, knew they had some breathing room thanks to their opening day victory, and for them, even a draw would likely secure advancement.
That dynamic led to an opening that saw Egypt looking nervy, making too many turnovers trying to force the ball to Mohamed Salah, finally back playing following his Champions League final injury from an ugly Sergio Ramos tackle. Egpyt, it appeared, well knew the desperation of their situation—and they were forcing things.
They began to settle down after about ten minutes, realising that on paper they were at least as good a side as Russia—plus they had Mohamed Salah. From that point on, the game was played mostly level, the Egyptians increasingly confident that if they could create one good chance for him, Salah could be the difference.
The closest either side came in the first half, unsurprisingly, was Salah in the 42nd minute when a well worked pass and dummy saw the ball at his feet on the edge of the penalty area. A pirouette. An inch of space. And a shot just wide of Igor Akinfeev’s goal. It wasn’t the goal Egypt needed, but it was a warning of Salah’s threat.
Egypt, though, didn’t get a chance to build on that warning. Early in the second, a defensive blunder sealed their fate as Russia whipped a cross into the area and right back Ahmed Fathy tried to step in front of striker Artem Dzyuba. His outstretched boot only managed to direct the ball into the bottom corner. Russia were ahead.
Two goals were what Egypt needed as a result, and they pushed hard to get them. Salah pushed hard, too, but it was clear that even if he was somewhere close fit he wasn’t quite 100% healthy, and he certainly wasn’t up to match speed. With the ball at his feet he was still the best player on the pitch, but that wasn’t enough.
And as Egypt pushed, the space for Russia began to open up. What had been a tightly contested match until then saw spaces start to appear between the lines. Then Russia struck, this time with a well created goal, as deserved as their first was fortunate, finished by Dennis Cheryshev with a jab of his left foot.
Three minutes later they had a third. Egypt had crumbled. A late goal in the opening game for Uruguay after a level match. A cruel own goal in the second after a level first half. They didn’t give up, not completely, and Salah earned and converted a penalty on 73 minutes to at least make things interesting. It wasn’t enough.
Egypt’s World Cup is over now, all but mathematically at least—Russia are good as through with two wins and Uruguay need one point from their final two games against Russia and Saudi Arabia. For Egypt, and for Salah, it’s a harsh and painful way to end to their World Cup, their dreams crushed early in their first appearance since 1990.
And just as Liverpool fans wondered after the Champions League final, Egyptians will now be asking themselves what if. What if they hadn’t gone to sleep on Uruguay’s late set-piece goal? What if they hadn’t handed Russia all the momentum with an own goal here? What if Mohamed Salah had been fit? What if.