Egypt do battle with Zimbabwe in the curtain raiser of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Friday night at the Cairo International Stadium.
The competition is the 32nd edition and will be the first time it’ll take place in Europe’s summer.
This year’s tournament has also increased from 16 teams to 24 sides, with four of the highest ranked third-placed teams also progressing into the Last 16.
The host nation is overwhelming favourites against the Warriors and will look to begin their Afcon campaign on a high by claiming maximum points against Sunday Chidzambwa’s troops.
After a seven-year absence, the Pharaohs returned to the Afcon finals two years ago in Gabon but ultimately lost in the final with Cameroon sealing a 2-1 victory at the last hurdle.
This time around, on home soil, under the management of experienced Javier Aguirre, the North Africans are seeking their eighth African crown and their first since 2010 – when a 1-0 success against Ghana sealed their third-successive title.
On the four previous occasions that Egypt have hosted the tournament – 1959, 1974, 1986 and 2006 – they’ve gone on to win the trophy every time except in 1974 when Zaire (now DR Congo) eliminated them in the semi-final as they eventually ended third.
The nation’s star player is none other than Mohamed Salah, who scored 22 times in the just concluded Premier League campaign. The Liverpool man was their best player on their return to the continental showpiece in 2017 and had a hand in four of their five goals – scoring twice and recording as many assists – which prompted his inclusion in the Africa Cup of Nations Team of the Tournament.
His importance to Egypt’s chances were highlighted by Pharaohs captain Ahmed Elmohamady in their pre-match press conference.
“We are 23 players and we all play as a team. The presence of Liverpool star Mohamed Salah, who is one of the best three players in the world, will help us achieve success in the future.”
Aguirre was a bit more modest in his praise of the Liverpool forward, instead choosing to praise the entire side, but still recognized Salah’s quality.
“Mohamed Salah is a player in my team, just like the remaining 22 players. All of them are Egypt’s players,” the 60-year-old began.
"Reaching this stage is very important, Salah is like the rest of the players and has equal chances, but he is also a very special player.”
The forward only featured in one of the host nation’s warm-up friendlies – against Guinea – and proved to be the difference as he registered two assists after coming on after the hour mark in the eventual 3-1 win.
Aguirre’s side played out to a 1-0 win over Tanzania in their first preparatory game in Alexandria.
In Wednesday’s press conference, the Mexican manager was effusive in his praise of Friday’s opponents and chose not to underestimate their threat.
“Zimbabwe deserves to be in the competition, they are a strong side. Our first game will be very important because it’s the opening game of the tournament, which will put pressure on us.
“However, we will play our usual game against Zimbabwe because we respect them very much. We prepared very well for this difficult game, which we must win.
This tournament will be Zimbabwe’s fourth appearance at the Nations Cup finals. However, they have never progressed past the group stage on three previous occasions.
Two years ago, the Warriors finished rock bottom in a tough group that contained Senegal, Tunisia and Algeria. They ended with a solitary point after three games, scoring four times and conceding a staggering eight goals which were the highest of any side in the group phase.
Chidzambwa’s squad features British-based pair of defender Tendayi Darikwa and Alec Mudimu who play for Nottingham Forest and Welsh Premier League side Cefn Druids respectively.
Kaizer Chiefs stars Khama Billiat and Teenage Hadebe also feature in the group, while Dalian Yifang’s Nyasha Mushekwi made the team.
Be that as it may, the Southern African nation will look to skipper Knowledge Musona to bear much of the side’s responsibility at the competition.
The Anderlecht forward has been bullish leading up to the opening game against the host nation and believes his side can spring surprises as they aspire to make it out of the group for the first time.
“With the confidence that I have as the team captain, and also the confidence I have from the players, I think that we can go past the group stages," Musona told the Herald Newspaper.
“It doesn’t matter whom we play in the first game, we know it’s going to be a big game, strong opponents, opening game and they almost never lose at home, we know it’s a tough game.
“But, we are also ready, as underdogs, to show the country, and the world, that we are not here to just make up the numbers but to fight and show what we are capable of.”
Unfortunately, the Warriors will have to do without Tafadzwa Kutinyu at the finals after the midfielder suffered a muscle strain.
Coach Chidzambwa acknowledged Egypt will be hard to stop but believes in his team’s proficiency at getting results at the Afcon.
“We know how strong Egypt are especially when they play at home and the fans on their side supporting them throughout the competition,” said Chidzambwa.
“Zimbabwe were among 24 other teams fighting for Afcon qualification. Now that we are in the Afcon group stages, we will work hard to get the best possible results in all our games,” he concluded.
The 67-year-old’s side secured two draws in their warm-up games, which included a creditable goalless draw against one of the competition favourites Nigeria in Asaba, before playing out to a 1-1 stalemate against Tanzania.
The opening game will be refereed by Cameroonian official Sidi Alioum, and he will be assisted by countryman Evarist Menkouande and the Senegalese El Hadji Malick Samba.