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Egypt 0-1 Uruguay: Jose Gimenez’s late header covers up the cracks as Mohamed Salah’s absence is felt

It was a game of waiting. Everybody waited, at first, for Mohamed Salah. And when he didn’t show up, neither in the starting line-up nor in any of the three substitutions, everybody waited for a Uruguay goal that increasingly came to see inevitable. Nothing much had happened for 80 minutes, but then Edinson Cavani forced a fine save from Mohamed El Shenawy and hit the post with a free-kick before, at last, the Egyptian resistance was broken by Jose Gimenez’s header from a right-wing corner.

Despite Hector Cuper’s bullish words on Thursday, Salah did not start, although his emergence for the warm-up, and a shot of his face on the big screen midway through the first half, were greeted with huge cheers. He has, after all, scored 33 international goals – one more than the rest of the Egypt squad put together. When Ramadan Sobhy came on with eight minutes remaining, though, it was confirmed that Salah would be not be involved.

The logic, perhaps, was there was no sense risking him in what is likely to be the hardest game in the group when his influence may be more valuable against Russia and Saudi Arabia (although that sort of reasoning perhaps took a blow with the hosts’ 5-0 win in the opening game and the realisation that Russia may be rather better than anticipated and Saudi Arabia rather worse).

For all the talk of a new-style Uruguay, of the harvesting of an orchard planted by Oscar Taberez when he returned to the job in 2006, no side featuring Diego Godin, Gimenez and Martin Caceres is ever going to be compromising. Rodrigo Bentancur and Matias Vecino may represent a more progressive school of central midfielder, and Guillermo Varela is not as care-worn and cynical as Maxi Pereira at right-back, but this is still essentially a functional Uruguay. The quote attributed to Che Guevara that adorns the wall of Tabarez’s house, after all, reads “one must toughen oneself without ever losing tenderness”: hardness is the virtue; humanity merely a restraint.
Whether that really necessitates a string of long balls is another matter. Perhaps there was a sense of anxiety but there was a distinct sense that they were playing into the hands of a well-drilled and physically imposing Egypt defence. Some mitigation was perhaps offered by a pitch that looked dry, so the ball tended to stick in the surface.

When a chance did drop to Luis Suarez from a corner after 24 minutes, he inexplicably scuffed his shot into the side-netting from six yards. Then, laid in by a finely-weighted ball from Cavani in the first minute of the second half, Suarez was denied by the right boot of the advancing Mohamed El Shenawy. There was a third chance too, 17 minutes from time, but Suarez’s control deserted him enough for El Shenawy to smother at his feet.

Without their attacking star, Egypt defended deep, played with an understandable caution and wasted time almost from the off, through a combination of feigned injury and a series of goal-kicks given the sort of protracted consideration Terry Griffiths used to give to extricating himself from a particularly fiendish snooker. No player in history has ever had such a low pain threshold as Egypt’s 45-year-old reserve goalkeeper, Essam El Hadary, a veteran of their three Cup of Nations triumphs of the last 2000s, and El Shenawy seems to have been an eager pupil.

Perhaps, though, you can’t kid a kidder. Uruguay have been masters of spoiling over the years and perhaps they knew that Egypt would tire.

The ratcheting up of pressure in those final minutes was clear and it brought them their first win in their opening game at a World Cup since 1970.

Tabarez slowly, the stick his Guillan-Barre syndrome forces him to use clasped in hand, pushed himself up from the bench, barely a flicker of emotion on his face. Job done.
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