Try as he might, Salah couldn’t do enough to give Egypt win

Egypt's Mohamed Salah leaves the pitch after the group A match between Russia and Egypt at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the St. Petersburg stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) Try as he might, Mohamed Salah couldn’t do enough to give Egypt the victory it needed at the World Cup.

The Premier League player of the year won and converted a late consolation penalty in his team’s 3-1 loss to Russia on Tuesday, a result that makes it extremely unlikely for Egypt to advance.

Returning from a shoulder injury to play in his first ever World Cup match, Salah provided a few glimpses of the skills and marksmanship that helped him score 44 goals in all competitions with Liverpool last season.

His 73rd-minute goal from the penalty spot came after host Russia scored three goals in a 15-minute, second-half burst. Egypt’s last Group A match is against Saudi Arabia on Monday.

For much of the 90 minutes at the St. Petersburg Stadium, the 26-year-old Egyptian tried to find space for himself, with his teammates unable or incapable to provide him with the kind of service he receives at Liverpool. Too often, the passes were too long, too short, too high or intercepted by a dogged and well-organized Russian defense.

It was hardly a fitting comeback for a player who gained global stardom on the strength of a single brilliant season with Liverpool, whom he joined last summer from Roma, and a player who enjoys the kind of popularity no athlete has ever enjoyed in Egypt.

The defeat stunned Egypt, a soccer crazy nation of some 100 million people whose hopes have been pinned on Salah delivering the desired result. Many watching the match at cafes left in tears or in rage after the third goal, a predictable reaction given the hype that has surrounded Salah and the national team since qualification was secured in October.

To the thousands of Egyptian fans who traveled to watch the Pharaohs play in Russia and the millions back home, it was the nearest thing to a national calamity. Egyptian fans almost outnumbered Russian supporters at the stadium, showing that they have taken the trouble to express their love for Salah as much as for the game.

They let out deafening cheers and applause when he stepped onto the pitch for the warmup and every time his image appeared on the stadium’s giant screens. Louder cheers rang out when he was presented by the announcer.

The Egyptians were colorful and noisy, many of them in Pharaonic costumes, waving or draped in the country’s red, white and black flags.

But the shoulder injury and possibly the lack of match fitness must have taken a toll on Salah, marked closely by Russia holding midfielder Roman Zobnin.

Egypt coach Hector Cuper told reporters the team’s medical staff had assured him before the match that Salah was ”fit and feeling good.”

”He couldn’t prepare with us in the training camp. He had to train alone,” Cuper said. ”Maybe that meant his total physical ability was reduced. People ask me, `what if he hadn’t been injured in the Champions League’s final?’ He would have had three weeks to train with us at the same intensity as the rest of the team.”

Salah’s body language revealed his frustration. He hardly reacted to Russia’s opener, an own-goal. Bu the second saw him rest his hands on his waist in despair and then pushing his hair backward.

The third was clearly the time he may have realized it was over. He pulled his white jersey up to cover his face.

At the final whistle, he looked down before he walked dejectedly back to the tunnel. He appeared unmoved by gestures of consolation from substitutes and team staff members as he walked off and, like other squad members, left the stadium without speaking to reporters.

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