Ahead of Liverpool’s Champions League final victory over Tottenham, Mohamed Salah glanced at a photograph to draw up pain and fuel his already burning desire
“I looked at the picture from last year before the game,” he said, referring to the Reds’ 2018 defeat to Real Madrid in Kiev, where a controversial tangle with Sergio Ramos left Salah stricken inside half an hour.
“I was very disappointed that I got injured and went off and we lost the game. It was something to motivate me to win. I just looked at it one time and said, ‘Okay, let’s go’.”
Moments later, the back-to-back Premier League Golden Boot winner was dispatching an early penalty and sending Liverpool on their way to a sixth triumph in Europe’s top competition.
The bad news for Egypt’s rivals at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, as Salah looks to add to another history of success, is the same stinging motivation remains.
Still feeling the effects of his shoulder injury, Salah was a shadow of the attacker that ransacked the best defenses in Europe at the World Cup in Russia last year. He still scored twice but the Pharaohs bowed out at the group stage after three straight defeats.
Hector Cuper paid with his job and experienced Mexican head coach Javier Aguirre has since led Egypt to six wins and a draw from his eight matches at the helm, with 20 goals in that time.
A settled and experienced squad featuring the likes of captain Ahmed Elmohamady, Ahmed Hegazi and Mohamed Elneny provide a solid foundation for Salah’s brilliance, and the tournament hosts are worthy of their favorites tag as they line up in Group A alongside DR Congo, Uganda and Zimbabwe – their opponents in Friday’s tournament opener.
Cameroon beat Egypt in the 2017 final but their build-up has not been ideal.
Stripped of the hosting rights, head coach Clarence Seedorf’s initial decision to snub China-based players led to Benjamin Moukandjo’s international retirement amid an unconvincing qualification campaign.
They line up in a tricky Group F with Benin, Guinea-Bissau and fellow heavyweights Ghana.
As such, former Indomitable Lions defender Lauren believes another nation with a strong recent pedigree in the tournament could prove Egypt’s toughest obstacle in pursuit of an eighth continental crown.
“Egypt are one of the favorites but I would go for Nigeria,” he told Omnisport. “I saw Nigeria in the World Cup, a very young team with a lot of quality and a young squad.
“We will see them progress and they are one of the favorites together with Egypt, Cameroon and Senegal.”
Since being denied a knockout place by Argentina in heart-breaking fashion in Russia, Nigeria have not always found consistency under Gernot Rohr but are the only side to have beaten Egypt during the intervening period.
Wilfred Ndidi and John Obi Mikel provide prowess and experience in midfield, while a favorable Group B draw alongside Guinea, Madagascar and Burundi should give Ahmed Musa and his attacking colleagues a chance to find their groove.
Group D looks devilishly tough on paper, with two-time winner Herve Renard leading a stylish Morocco boasting Ajax star Hakim Ziyech. A run of three consecutive defeats heading into the tournament has dampened expectations – a slump they must halt in the opener against Namibia with Ivory Coast and South Africa lying in wait.
A North African staging could work in favour of Tunisia – top seeds in Group E where they face Mali, Mauritania and Angola, as well as benefiting Algeria.
Djamel Belmadi’s Desert Foxes are unbeaten in six and play Kenya and Tanzania either side of a mouth-watering Group C showdown with Senegal, whose hopes rest on the defensive might of Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and the effervescent Sadio Mane in attack.
Nevertheless, most eyes will remain trained on another brilliant Liverpool forward and his bid fully right the wrongs of 12 months ago.