Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Egypt, Africa’s perennial underachievers, must keep waiting for that elusive first World Cup win. Manager Hector Cuper, renowned for his defensive outlook, devised an almost foolproof plan to keep Uruguay out here. But a toothless attack, and a longstanding vulnerability to crosses, ultimately proved the Pharaohs’ undoing.
Undoubtedly the cute Cuper will ship criticism aplenty for his ultra-cautious approach to this one. But those minded to carp at him must have very, very short memories. Saudi Arabia, open as a broken door, showed the world how not to minnow in Moscow on Thursday night. Let not Jose Maria Gimenez’s last minute winner fool you: the Argentinian got it right here.
Just ask Oscar Tabarez, who watched his narrow, rigid side huff and puff through a stultifying first-half. Only Egypt’s surprising determination to press high at goal-kicks offered the Uruguayans brief chances to play through. Otherwise, the South Americans were faced with a super-compact Egyptian unit, that they completely failed to stretch.
Key to this failure was Tabarez’s selection of injury-hit central defender Martin Caceres at left-back, presumably with Mohamed Salah in mind. But Salah, rated not fit enough to start by Cuper, did not feature. And Caceres, cumbersome in the opposition half, proved more of a drawback than a boon to his side’s cause. Diego Laxalt will surely start in his stead against Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, in central midfield, rumours of a newly-cultured Uruguay looked way wide of the mark. Back in 2010, Tabarez’s side reached the semi-finals without out-possessing a single one of their opponents. Now, with the youth of Matias Vecino and Rodrigo Bentancur stepping in for the Egidio Arevalos of this world, an entirely different footballing prospect was said to await Egypt.
But, although Bentancur played some nice diagonals, both he and his colleagues were always guilty of playing far too slowly. Egypt’s resolute defensive unit, therefore, rarely found itself pulled out of shape once set. Only Diego Godin, dribbling out of defence and manically covering across the back-four, showed any vim or vigor.
The shared tendencies of Nahitan Nandez and, particularly, Giorgian de Arrascaeta to wander inside only served to congest Uruguay’s play further. Right-back Guillermo Varela, once of Manchester United, used the space out wide poorly; just like Caceres on the opposite flank.
Egpyt’s wingers, Trezeguet and Salah’s assured deputy Amr Warda, made their task as difficult as possible, however, shuttling back to form a back-six on a regular basis. What a shame Trezeguet, the Turkish league standout, proved so brainless in possession. The 23-year-old, along with half-fit Abdallah El-Said and harmless striker Marwan Mohsen, completely failed to pose a serious counterattacking threat.
Pre-match, Uruguay’s best chance of attacking success seemed obvious. Surely the world-class pairing of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, one of the tournament’s only genuine strike partnerships, would make mincemeat of Ali Gabr and West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi.
Fortunately for the Pharaohs, Cuper had an answer for this, too, fielding an extraordinarily narrow back-four to narrow the channels and deny Uruguay’s 93-goal marksmen. As if to illustrate the point, veteran right-back Ahmed Fathi completed seven of his nine attempted tackles; five of which were pulled off in the Egyptian penalty area!
Indeed, it was a Fathi foul on Cavani that produced the PSG striker’s late free-kick brush with the woodwork. By this point, with Egypt starting to tire, and the effects of Ramadan fasting — and Mohamed Elneny’s recent injury — starting to bite, gaps were finally starting to appear in Uruguay’s favour.
Despite attempting no through balls in the first-half, Tabarez’s side completed two in the second: both from Cavani; both finding Suarez in behind Hegazi. Alas, the Barcelona man was woeful here, fluffing his lines on both occasions. Egyptian goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy, replacing the injured Ahmed El-Shenawy, performed brilliantly throughout his fourth appearance for his country.
This late Uruguay revival also owed much to a canny double-change from Tabarez on the hour-mark. Both Nandez and de Arrascaeta were hooked, replaced by genuine width in Carlos Sanchez and World Cup stalwart Cristian Rodriguez.
Rodriguez skipped a Fathi challenge to instigate Suarez’s second big wasted chance. And Sanchez, 33, attempted six crosses in his half-hour on the pitch; the last one headed home emphatically by the brilliant Gimenez.
Egypt’s weakness to crosses under Cuper is just as marked as their otherwise impressive defensive solidity. In the Argentinian’s first 35 games in charge, the Pharaohs only conceded 20 goals — but 14 of them were from crosses. And of Uruguay’s 15 efforts on goal here, eight eventuated from set-pieces. One was eventually bound to count.
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