It was a gamble that so nearly paid off but football is a game of small margins and that’s why Mohamed Salah winced with the sheer agony of defeat to Uruguay near the end.
Egypt thought they had escaped with leaving him on the bench, recovering from the shoulder injury which had made his presence here such a source of conjecture these past three weeks. But after 89 minutes in which the game’s other top-billed player, Luis Suarez, spectacularly failed to show up, defender Jose Gimenez leapt to head home a free-kick and launch Uruguay towards the knockout stage.
Salah has assumed such a hallowed place in the football firmament that Pele – or his people – tweeted him ‘happy birthday’ when the day of the African nation’s return to the World Cup finally dawned. But his place on the bench punctured the spirits of the hundreds who’d walked up to the stadium in the sunshine with his name on their backs and Uruguay’s arch assassin was also absent in all but name
The first half’s outstanding chance was presented to Suarez when a stray ball across the box reached him but his shot was scruffy, the connection poor, and it reached the side-netting. An earlier effort from him, from the opposite side of the box, was screwed wide and the player did not look like he had the intuition to seize the chance Salah’s absence presented and drive Egypt out of sight.
The only performance fitting football’s greatest stage came from Suarez’s strike partner Edinson Cavani, drifting deep to begin moves, ghosting into space around the area and supplying with missile precision. The first half’s outstanding moment was a precursor of all that was to follow for him: chest control, left foot manouevre and a right foot half volley which was deflected over the bar.
Uruguay otherwise provided pitifully little evidence of the new pace which is now supposedly part of this team. There were saving graces. Much of the play went through 20-year-old Rodrigo Bentancur, whose touch and time on the ball, taken with his distribution, were superb. Captain Diego Godin, one of their Atletico Madrid central defensive pairing, also revealed his capacity to drive the side forward at times. But that was about it for most of the match.
The pitch preparation may have contributed – early evidence suggests the length of the grass is causing the ball to move slowly over the turf in this tournament – though that doesn’t tell the full story.
With Egypt as defensive and unambitious as they always are, Salah’s every move, captured on the screen, became a sideshow no less engaging than the main event. The man in question reaching for his shin-pads was the plot twist which triggered most Egyptian roars.
Some more Cavani vision created another chance for Suarez at the start of the second half – a deftly measured ball into the right hand side of area which the forward, looking slightly more energised, raced past Ahmed Hegazy to reach, shooting into goalkeeper Mohamed Elshenawy’s right knee.
Oscar Tabarez saw the need to shake things up on the hour mark with a double substitution. But the prime means of a breakthrough – Suarez – just could not find his finish. Another deft Cavani clip took the No 9 through on Elshenawy, though he delayed the point of despatch, trying to take the ball around the keeper who collected it from him as he went on his way. Suarez raised his hands to his head. The look on his face said it all.
Cavani took matters into his own hands as the minutes ticked down. He crashed a ball Suarez had headed into his path goalwards on the volley seven minutes from time, only to see Elshenawy palm it away. Then he arced a free-kick against the right-hand post and saw the ball hacked clear.
All hope seemed lost when substitute Carlos Sanchez launched a free-kick, Gimenez leapt above Kahraba and – to howls of despair from the noisy Egyptian contingent – Uruguay left the field with a win in their pockets.