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WORLD CUP: Salah can rouse Egypt after 28-year wait

HAMZA HENDAWI
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In this photo taken on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, Egypt's national soccer team pose for a photograph ahead of the 2018 World Cup group E qualifying soccer match between Egypt and Congo at the Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria, Egypt. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

CAIRO (AP) — Mohammed Salah has the ability to light up any team, including Egypt.

The Liverpool striker has been in superb form this season, but playing at the World Cup will be a new experience for him. Egypt qualified for the tournament for the first time in 28 years, and its chances in Group A against host Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay mainly rest on the 25-year-old Salah's shoulders.

In last month's warm-up games, headers proved to be Egypt's undoing. Salah put Egypt in the lead against Portugal, but Cristiano Ronaldo scored two late goals with his head for the European champions. In a dour game against Greece, Egypt lost 1-0 after another goal was nodded in.

Here's a closer look at the Egypt team:

COACH

Hector Cuper took over in 2015 after a dismal run under former United States coach Bob Bradley. The Argentine inherited a seven-time African champion that had failed to qualify for the last three continental championships.

Not only did Cuper lead the team to the 2017 African Cup of Nations, but they reached the final before losing to Cameroon. The World Cup exile then ended with a game to spare in qualifying.

The pair of feats halted media criticism of Cuper's tactics and turned him into a national hero. So much so that football federation officials are hoping Cuper reverses plans to leave the job after the World Cup.

However, doubts persist over whether Cuper has done enough to improve a squad that is notorious for losing the ball, squandering chances in front of goal and aerial weaknesses.

GOALKEEPERS

At 45, Essam el-Hadary could become the oldest player to compete at a World Cup. Russia may be his last stop in an illustrious career spanning three decades which took him to clubs in Switzerland, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, where he plays for Al-Taawoun.

Despite his vast international experience, El-Hadary must guard against some of the lapses of concentration and poor decision-making that surfaced in recent years.

Ahmed el-Shennawy was El-Hadary's backup before being ruled out of the World Cup with a left knee injury. That leaves Al-Ahly goalkeeper Mohammed el-Shennawy, who is no relation, as a possible replacement.

DEFENDERS

Ahmed Hegazy is the rock of the defense. At 6-foot-4 (1.95 meters), the 29-year-old center back is formidable in the air and has been growing in confidence and authority in the Premier League even as West Bromwich Albion has struggled.

Ali Jabr, a teammate for club and country, has been rarely used by West Brom, but he could retain his place in the Egypt back four because of his international experience.

Veterans Ahmed Fathy and Mohamed Abdel-Shafy look sure to start, with their runs on both flanks key to feeding the forwards.

Substitute defenders will most likely include Saad Sameer and Ayman Ashraf, both of Egyptian club Al-Ahly, and Ahmed Elmohamady of Aston Villa.

MIDFIELDERS

Egypt will be hoping Mohammed Elneny fully recovers from an ankle injury sustained playing for Arsenal. Elneny and Abdullah Said, who has been playing at Finnish club Kuopion Palloseura, should provide a solid midfield backbone that's a big part of the machine feeding Salah up front.

With their commitment and energy, the quality of the pair's performances could prove to be the difference between Egypt appearing disjointed or showing off its flowing football.

Their backups include Tareq Hamed of Egyptian club Zamalek and Amr Warda, who plays for Greek club Atromitos.

FORWARDS

After scoring more than 40 goals this season with Liverpool, Salah will be looking to continue his prolific form on the biggest stage in Russia.

Salah, the Professional Footballers' Association player of the year, doesn't get the same service with Egypt as he enjoys at Anfield. But he has shown versatility at Liverpool, changing positions to shake off markers.

Salah's partners up front will include Mahmoud Hassan — better known by his nickname Trezeguet — and Mahmoud Abdel-Monaim — also known as Kahrabah. Trezeguet plays for Turkish club Kasimpasa, while Kahrabah plays in Saudi Arabia.

Another attacking option is 21-year-old midfielder Ramadan Sobhi, who has been struggling to start for Stoke and has only scored twice in the Premier League this season.

GROUP GAMES

Egypt, which didn't advance past the opening round in its previous World Cup appearances in 1934 and 1990, will open against Uruguay on June 15. The team based in Grozny will then take on Russia on June 19 and Saudi Arabia on June 25.

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More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup