Egypt boss Hector Cuper has kept Russia guessing over whether or not he will be able to unleash “one of the best players in the world” on them in St Petersburg tonight.
The Group A rivals go head to head with the hosts knowing a second successive victory could secure their progression to the second round, but equally aware that the impending return of Mohamed Salah from injury may threaten their dream.
Liverpool hitman Salah was due to undergo a fitness test on the shoulder injury he suffered in the Champions League final last month on Monday evening, but Cuper is optimistic that he will be able to take his place in the team after missing Friday’s opening defeat by Uruguay.
The Argentinian said: “Salah is one of the best players in the world. He is in the top 10 today for me, there’s no shadow of a doubt there. It’s an honour and a privilege to coach him.
“It’s great to be able to work with him because on top of being talented, he is humble, he plays as a team player and that, at least for me, is extremely important nowadays.
“The fact that we can count on him... I’m not saying he is a guarantee, but he’s definitely an important offensive weapon and I have to say when we don’t have him, we feel his absence and we have to come up with alternatives to try to get the same strength in offence.
“Hopefully tomorrow, he’ll be up to play. I’m optimistic, I think he’ll be able to play.”
Salah’s fitness or otherwise has been the major talking point leading up to the game, but Russia boss Stanislav Cherchesov is confident his players will succeed where Premier League and European opposition failed so spectacularly last season.
He said: “Of course Mo Salah is the strongest one of the team, we understand this, but we are not playing against one player, we have to take into consideration all the players.
Salah picked up his injury in a challenge by Real Madrid and Spain defender Sergio Ramos which sparked a major debate, but asked if he would adopt a similar approach, Cherchesov, whose side launched their campaign with a 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia, was dismissive.
He said: “I believe that Ramos did not do this on purpose. This is a contact sport and nobody injures people from other teams on purpose.
“I believe that Mo Salah will get better and he will be bringing happiness to the fans from Egypt. He is a player who only does good to such championships and tournaments.”
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