In a lively opening night of football, Egypt beat Zimbabwe 1-0 at the Africa Cup of Nations.
The host nation started the match like a house on fire but Zimbabwe fought their way back into it. What did we learn?
1. Finally, Trezeguet arrives
Last year prior to the 2018 World Cup, the amount of hype around Mahmoud Hassan in an Egyptian shirt was absurd. People spoke in hushed tones “oh, you don’t know? Just wait and see!” Winks were exchanged, people were told to keep an eye out for him.
And then he was rubbish. So the hype faded. This time he entered the Africa Cup of Nations with the world not really paying attention (although Egypt was certainly hyped) and that’s clearly suited him nicely because he played this game with a true artists’ touch.
Forget the goal. Although the way he won the ball back, drove up the left flank and exchanged passes with Ayman Ashraf before cutting inside one more time to blast the ball into the back of the net was amazing. His overall display was superb.
Trezeguet was the talisman for Egypt. He was the one carrying the ball, demanding it, feeding team-mates (he created a superb chance for Mohamed Salah with an unreal through-ball). All the play flowed through in and as a result it flowed smoothly. Could this finally be the international tournament where Trezeguet announces himself? On this display, you wouldn’t be surprised.
2. Sibanda Stands Tall
It would have been easy for Edmore Sibanda to stand aside and let Egypt obliterate unfancied Zimbabwe. In fact the way Sibanda kept goal on Egypt’s solitary strike was what one expected from the 33-year-old. Minimal effort, it’s going in so why dive?
After all, Zimbabwe were so outgunned and dominant that why go all out to stop them? Conserve your strength! Well, Sibanda did the exact opposite of that for 99% of his match. The veteran stopper put in a magnificent performance from the first second to the very last.
Alright he was kind of half-asleep for the goal that Zimbabwe did concede, either that or he completely misjudged the angles, but beyond that he was flawless right up the 78th minute when he had to go off. A collision with Marwan Mohsen (during which he made an amazing save) had left him carrying a knock on his knee, but he fought that as long as he could and put on a dominant display.
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3. Salah sizzles, but no spark
Mohamed Salah entered the 2019 African Cup of Nations as the best player at the tournament, by a distance. The Egyptian is currently one of the finest forwards on planet earth and unlike last year at the World Cup he’s not half-fit barely recovered from injury.
Now he’s not only healthy but fresh off a match-winning goal in a Champions League final. You’d have been expected him to rip every opponent to pieces, slicing and dicing the way he does for Liverpool. And sure enough Egypt were dominant enough to provide Salah the platform needed to open his tournament in fantastic form.
But Salah showed a little bit of rust in his finishing. His movement was lively but his execution was lacking in a big bad way. You’d imagine that will improve as time goes on but based on the evidence of tonight, Salah is going to have to do something special to score Egypt enough goals for them to win this tournament.
4. Zimbabwe will be no pushovers
Many expected Zimbabwe to turn up and get turned over. Or at least put up a defensive fight thanks to Egyptian profligacy. And whilst Zimbabwe needed a great display from Edmore Sibanda as well some shocking Egyptian shooting, they did keep things tight(ish) at the back.
And in attack? After some early nerves Zimbabwe played with an incredible level of energy and intent. Sure they were mostly playing on the break, but they never shied to commit men forward and to attack with intelligence. Sunday Chidzambwa’s team were tactically well set-up, defensively solid and in attack they let their star men shine.
Khama Billiat in particular showed no fear of his hosts, using the ball so intelligently he led countless raids into the Egyptian half. With a little bit more precision with their final pass, Zimbabwe could have caused serious problems for the Egyptians and this display was so cohesive against a dynamite host that any opponent who was viewing them as an easy win better think again.
5. Aguirre’s awesome impact
Javier Aguirre has been Egypt manager for almost a year. In that time his record in charge of the team is played 9, won 7, drew 1 and lost 1. But more impressive than the results he’s achieved is the football he’s got his side playing. Egypt have long been a side that were defensively solid but not really as free-flowing and evocative as they should be in attack.
But now, Aguirre has transformed them. They play with the kind of thrust and energy that really suits their attacking players, in particular Salah and Trezeguet. The quick passing and delightful interplay resulted in lots of chances being created against Zimbabwe and with some better finishing, Egypt could have won this by a clear margin.
Still, you don’t want to peak early and if Egypt keep on being this creative during the rest of the tournament and gradually increase their shot conversion, duck and cover because they will start puttin’ a hurt on people!