Mohamed Salah has been declared fit ahead of Egypt’s crunch game against Russia on Tuesday and coach Hector Cuper is optimistic his star striker will play.
But Russia boss Stanislav Cherchesov believes the World Cup hosts have figured out a way to rein Salah in when the two sides meet in Saint Petersburg.
Salah has scored 44 goals in a sensational first season for Liverpool and is keen to make his debut after missing the Pharaohs’ 1-0 opening game loss to Uruguay with a shoulder injury.
“Salah is fit,” Cuper said on Monday. “We always carry out a last physical test before naming the line-up.
“Today we will have a test for him to see how he is. I hope he will be fit to play, I’m sure he will be able to play. He is a central piece in our team.”
Cherchesov, however, says Russia have a plan to thwart Salah, even if he is available.
“The level he will be playing at only he and his coach knows but we have a mission and we will accomplish the mission,” Cherchesov said.
“I trust in my team, I believe in my players and I will give you a simple answer: we are ready to do this and we will do this.”
The bold promise highlights a new swagger that had been missing from the host nation’s team for much of the past year.
Russia’s convincing win over the Saudis was preceded by a seven-match winless streak and a spate of injuries that wiped out almost the entire defensive line.
But the men in red are now on the cusp of making their first knockout stage of a World Cup in post-Soviet history.
The achievement would be a huge relief for both players and Russians who worried about being humiliated on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
Standing in their way could be Salah, but his availability has been a headache for Egypt ever since he injured his shoulder during a tussle with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos during the Champions League final last month.
Ramos was accused of deliberately hurting Salah and it has been suggested opponents could target him again, particularly if his shoulder is not fully healed.
“I saw only that Ramos was holding the cup,” Cherchesov said. “He did not do this on purpose, this is a contact sport, and as I understand it nobody injures people from other teams on purpose.
“Salah will get better and bring happiness to fans of Egypt. Players like him only make tournaments better.”
Russia’s veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev said he would rather focus on winning than any particular opposing player.
“Would I prefer to see Salah play or not? I do not even know how to respond,” said Akinfeev. “I would prefer to see my team win.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s early success has seen the number of Russians who say they will follow football rise from 52 percent to 64 percent, according to one poll.