Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Reputations are made to be broken. Hector Cuper, the dour Argentinian who led Egypt to their first finals in 28 years, is seen by all and sundry as a negative manager. The people of host nation Russia, this tournament’s lowest-ranked side, predicted certain embarrassment — and early elimination — on home soil.
And, yet, as of Tuesday night, Russia are sitting pretty atop Group A on six points; poised to reach their first knockout phase since the collapse of the USSR. And Cuper, after indulging Mohamed Salah in a shockingly open system, is going home. Football: bloody hell.
Salah’s return to the Pharaohs side came as no surprise. But the manner of his incorporation very much did. Cuper handed his half-fit hitman complete freedom from defensive duties, turning Egypt’s 4-2-3-1 into something resembling a lopsided diamond formation.
This unexpected Egyptian abandon, presumably fueled by Friday’s late defeat to Uruguay, caught Russia rather on the hop. Having set their stall out to sit deep and counterattack, allowing Egypt to dominate the ball for the first 15 minutes, Stanislav Cherchesov’s side then quickly changed tack — sensing their left-sided opportunity.
Aleksandr Golovin, shifted in to the 10 in Alan Dzagoev’s absence, began to drift back to his prior posting; assisting Denis Cheryshev in overloading right-back Ahmed Fathi. Left-back Yuri Zhirkov, of course, stayed at home to mind Salah; his 34 years no longer permitting the characteristic up-and-down performances of old.
And, although Mohamed Elneny was drawn out from the centre to help his captain, Russia still attempted 11 left-wing crosses before the break, winning all four of their first-half corners on that flank.
Fortunately for Cuper, centre-backs Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr, who struggled against Uruguay’s nippy front-two, found the agricultural talents of target-man Artem Dzyuba marginally easier to handle. The pair headed clear most of the deliveries that came their way from Fathi’s side, and Dyzuba gave up eight turnovers before half-time. The Zenit striker did win roughly half of his aerial duels, however, hinting at what was to come.
Marwan Mohsen also proved useful in the aerial skirmishes, as Egypt joined Russia in going direct to their big striker. The Al-Ahly target-man positioned himself well to head wide a couple of decent first-half chances. And his link-up play with Salah sparked at times, too; let down by the Liverpool forward’s clear lack of match readiness.
Really, Egypt’s attacking play was dreadful, notwithstanding the number of men they committed forward. Trezeguet, inexplicably favoured to Amr Warda here, looked brainless once again. Ramadan Sobhi, his eventual replacement, shamed the Anderlecht winger by almost immediately providing the wall-pass leading to Salah’s consolation penalty.
Admittedly, Russia’s disciplined central midfield came up trumps for Cherchesov once more, with Roman Zobnin again particularly prominent in cutting opposition attacks off at the knees. The Spartak box-to-box player played deeper here than he did against Saudi Arabia; presumably with a mind to getting bodies around Salah. It worked.
Perhaps learning, then, from Egypt’s one-dimensionality, Russia wisely abandoned theirs at the beginning of the second stanza. The opportunity afforded by Tamer Hamed’s isolation in front of the Egyptian defence was too rarely grabbed before the break. Until, that is, Zobnin ran forward, unmarked, and deflected an effort in off Fathi.
Goalkeeper Ahmed El-Shenawy did the initial damage, punching a catchable right-wing cross into the midfielder’s path. Here, again, we saw Egypt’s incredible vulnerability to crosses; 70% of the first 20 goals conceded under Cuper’s reign were shipped from that avenue — as was Jose Maria Gimenez’s late Uruguay winner.
Russia quickly made it two — Egypt again defending with just Hamed in front of their back-four. Dzyuba duly popped up free between the lines, commencing another right-wing move that saw Fernandes run off Trezeguet to set up Cheryshev. The out-and-out winger added real balance from the bench against Saudi Arabia. And, although his kind are considered an anachronism in the modern game, he now has three World Cup goals to his name.
Dzyuba then increased his own personal tournament tally to two, by besting both Hegazi, and his covering defender Gabr, to a Kutepov long-ball. As West Bromwich Albion will tell you, that’s Hegazi for you: impeccable until his customary error.
Cuper immediately responded by reconstituting his side into a genuine 4-4-2; introducing Warda and Sobhi on the right and left respectively. And, the game all but over, the Pharaohs finally improved as a cohesive attacking force, winning the penalty and forcing callow centre-back Ilya Kutepov into some more shaky moments: the Spartak defender will be a real problem for Russia against top sides.
But for now neither Cherchesov, nor his players, nor their country, will care. They’re finally going to the knockout phase. And Egypt, their star player indulged by a manager who lost his head, are going home.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112