SAINT PETERSBURG – Three weeks and three days after Sergio Ramos twisted and slammed Egypt’s best World Cup hope into the grass, Mohamed Salah returned.
He won a penalty, and scored it, ripping the ball with his left foot into the top corner.
But by then, Russia were already three up and this game was as good as gone.
“If he was not injured, it is very difficult to know what would have happened,” Egypt coach Hector Cuper said. “But we know the quality he has.”
On show here was not the Salah that had tormented Roma and Manchester City, or scored 32 goals in the Premier League and 10 to power Liverpool to the Champions League final.
Congratulations to former Blue Mohamed Salah on scoring his first World Cup finals goal in his first ever appearance. —- pic.twitter.com/VzvARKGXlM
— Talk Chelsea (@talkchelsea) June 20, 2018
This was Salah making the best of things, hoping to deliver a single, match-winning moment even if he knew a complete performance was never on the cards.
The way he shuffled off at the end, as Russia’s substitutes rushed on to celebrate a 3-1 victory in Group A, suggested even he knew it was a long shot.
Certainly, he was not 100 per cent fit, that much had been clear on Monday when Salah jogged around the Saint Petersburg Stadium pitch, testing out his left shoulder with a series of tentative barges but opting out when his team-mates swung their arms in circles.
It was clear too in the first 30 minutes, when the 26-year-old barely touched the ball, and when he did, turned back, looked inside or, on more than one occasion, gave it away.
“He wasn’t in all the preparation with us and that cost him a little bit of his physical ability,” Cuper said.
He had little option but to play him, of course, given a second consecutive match missed would likely mean Salah being fitter only for a dead rubber against Saudi Arabia.
Realistically, Egypt had to win here and in playing Salah, Cuper played his trump card.
There was a psychological boost to be gained too, as Egyptian fans, draped in flags and coated in face paint, bounced and cheered whenever Salah’s face appeared on the big screen.
Russian supporters knew his importance. One even arrived wearing a Real Madrid shirt, with Ramos’ name printed on the back.
And so too did 34-year-old left-back Yuri Zhirkov. When cross-field balls floated towards Salah, Zhirkov headed them clear. When Salah collected the ball deeper in midfield, Zhirkov clattered his second touch. When Salah pulled free at the back post, Zhirkov made the clearance, scrambling the ball over his own bar.
“We have a mission and we will accomplish the mission,” Russia’s coach Stanislav Cherchesov had vowed on Monday.
Salah showed glimpses but his touch was never crisp, his thought process indecisive.
— FIFA World Cup — (@FIFAWorldCup) June 19, 2018
At the end of the first half, he finally had Zhirkov squared up on the edge of the area but his footwork was muddled and a shot on the turn whistled past the post.
Perhaps the single moment did, in the end, arrive in the 73rd minute. Egypt poured into the box and as Salah looked to run beyond, Zhirkov tugged him back.
After consulting his video assistant, referee Enrique Caceres upgraded the free-kick into a penalty and Salah made no mistake.
Only by then, Russia were home and dry, an own-goal from Ahmed Fathi and strikes from Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba putting the hosts on the brink of the last 16.
Salah had his goal but it was nothing more than a footnote.