St Petersburg — Mohamed Salah is a looming obstacle for Russia as the World Cup hosts attempt to secure their place in the knockout stages when they meet Egypt in St Petersburg on Tuesday.
Fears that poor performances from the home side could damp enthusiasm in the host nation were blown away by a 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the opening game.
The seven-time African champions will pose a much tougher task, but a lot will depend upon Salah’s fitness.
Liverpool star Salah has not featured since leaving the field in tears early in the Champions League final just over three weeks ago after landing heavily on his left shoulder and had to watch from the bench as Egypt lost 1-0 to Uruguay in their opening game.
Salah was declared 100% fit by Egypt’s team doctor and his agent, leaving little doubt he will be thrown back into action in the Pharaohs’ hour of need.
However, as he returned to training on Saturday, Salah was seen by reporters at Egypt’s training camp in Grozny needing help from teammates to lift a training top over his head.
"Salah participated in training with his team-mates for the entire session and he is ready to play against Russia according to technical staff," Egypt’s team manager Ihab Leheta said.
Egypt coach Hector Cuper’s decision not to risk Salah against Uruguay may have been influenced by his side’s holding out for 89 minutes before conceding to Jose Gimenez, by which time the Argentine had made all three of his substitutions.
"Russia’s game is fateful and difficult because of our defeat against Uruguay," said Leheta. "Winning is our only choice."
If fully fit, the sight of Salah, who scored 44 goals in his remarkable debut season at Liverpool, will strike fear into the Russians.
Concerns Russia could become just the second host nation to bow out of the World Cup at the group stage after a seven-game winless run ahead of the tournament have been alleviated by a perfect start.
With Uruguay favourites to top the group, though, Russia are keen not to have to rely on getting something from their final group game against the two-time former world champions.
"The second game will be our most important one in the group stage," said Russia’s deputy prime minister and former football federation president, Vitaly Mutko, after attending Russia’s training session on Sunday.
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, Mutko oversaw preparations for the tournament at a cost of more than $13bn.
Denis Cheryshev was Russia’s hero against Saudi Arabia, coming off the bench to score twice. The Villarreal winger accepted it would be a more "interesting" clash if Salah was fit. "If he’s not there, does that mean our task becomes easy? Not at all," he said. " He’s one of the best and you always want to compete with the best."
Russia will be without key player Alan Dzagoev who has a hamstring injury.