The Egyptian national football team is in danger of missing out on the Africa Nations Cup for the second time in a row, reports Ahmed Morsy
Seven-time African champions Egypt, who won an unprecedented three back-to-back Nations Cup titles between 2006 and 2010, are now in danger of missing out on the 2013 Africa Nations Cup finals, which would make it the second miss in a row.
After slumping to a 3-2 defeat by 10-man Central Africa behind closed doors in Alexandria on Friday, Egypt are on the verge of another stunning African Nations Cup failure. In the previous qualifiers, they shockingly missed out on the 2012 edition after enduring a disappointing qualifying campaign that eventually led to the departure of highly successful boss Hassan Shehata.
Despite their promising start to the World Cup qualifiers when they defeated Mozambique and Guinea in their first two games earlier this month, Egypt, against Central Africa, appeared exhausted and badly affected by lack of domestic football action since the Port Said tragedy in February in which 74 football fans died in a local game which forced the cancellation of the league.
Against Central Africa, the Pharaohs failed to win although they took the lead twice in addition to the first half dismissal of defender Salif Keita for a second bookable offence.
Hence, their second leg match on 30 June has become a mountain to climb if they are to reach next year's Nations Cup finals in South Africa and avoid another letdown.
The Friday game was brought forward two days to avoid Egypt's presidential election runoff on 16 and 17 June.
From the beginning, Egypt American coach Bob Bradley applied an attacking formation fielding four forwards in his line-up: Mohamed Abu Treika, Mohamed Zidan, Mohamed Salah and Ahmed Temsah. Thanks to them, Egypt took an early lead in the 10th minute. Veteran playmaker Abu Treika releases Temsah with a through pass to cross it for Zidan, who tapped in easily into an empty net.
At the back, though, Egypt suffered from the guests' swift counterattacks. Fifteen minutes later, against the run of play, Central Africa levelled the score from a neatly-worked counter attack when Hilaire Momi beat the offside trap to break clear, looping the ball over advancing keeper Essam El-Hadari into an empty net.
While Egypt were pushing forward to restore their advantage, Momi sent a powerful shot that narrowly missed the target in the 34th minute. One minute later, Central Africa defender Keita was sent off for a second bookable offence.
Following the interval, Bradley made his first substitution. Ahli's lively right-back Ahmed Fathi replaced Ahmed El-Mohamadi to impose more pressure from the right flank assisting Salah. Three minutes later, their pressure reaped rewards when Salah put Egypt in front with a superb shot. He was sent clean through by a threaded pass from Abu Treika to send an unstoppable curling shot into the far corner of the net from a right tight angle.
Bradley placed Mohamed Nagi 'Gedo' for Zidan to revive the forward line. However, in the 62nd minute, Egypt once again paid for some dreadful defensive blunders. Momi scores his second of the night after being picked out unmarked at the far post to notch home with aplomb. Only six minutes later, the guests made the most of Egypt's defensive woes when David Manga held off several defenders, exchanged passes with a teammate to go clear and fire home past El-Hadari.
Despite playing with 10 men, the visitors had done the unthinkable.
Prior to the game, Bradley sounded a cautious note, trying not to take it for granted that the seven-time African champions were expected to enjoy a smooth progress to the final round, where they would play another two-legged tie to reach next year's Nations Cup finals in South Africa.
"It's not going to be easy. African football has developed enormously in the past few years and there are no big or small names anymore. We need a convincing win to feel safe before the return leg in a fortnight," the former United States coach told the official website of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) ahead of the game.
"As I said before African football has developed a lot and there are no minnows on the continent anymore. I followed some games of the Central African Republic and they're a respectable team."
Following their home defeat, he said the loss was "a cruel lesson for all of team to learn not to underestimate any inferior teams in the future.
"My players were very exhausted after Sunday's clash with Guinea, but I didn't expect that performance at all," Bradley said in a press conference after the match.
"We had many faults in the match but this is not our real level. We delivered good performances in other recent matches."
Still, Bradley was confident his team still has a chance to reach the finals.
"The defeat is a harsh lesson for all of us to learn not to underestimate any team in the future," added Bradley. However, "we still have a chance to recover in the return leg, like when we snatched a late win against Guinea. Our only target now is to win with a high score."
Egypt must win 2-0 to advance.
Elsewhere, Nigeria beat Rwanda while Cameroon passed by Guinea-Bissau in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday.
For the 2013 ACN qualifications, 28 national teams play in a knock-out phase that will strip the teams down to 14. The 14 winners will be joined by 16 finalists from the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations finals: Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Gabon, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, Tunisia and Zambia.
They will go into a draw for a last round of 15 matches and the winners of those ties, to be played over two legs home and away in September and October, will qualify for the finals in South Africa.
For the first time since 1990, all the qualifying matches will be played on a knockout basis without advancing to any group stage because of the short interval between the 2012 finals and 2013 competition.
Of the 16 nations participating in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations finals, South Africa automatically gain entry as hosts after that country struck a deal with Libya to swap their hosting rights in 2017.
Libya was originally scheduled to act as hosts, but political instability in the North African country made it impossible. South Africa, as hosts of the 2017 tournament, stepped in and offered to switch, giving the Libyans more time to prepare.
Bradley decided Saturday to rest the team for three days after the loss. He also agreed that Ahli players join their team in training in Turkey, then return to the national squad before the Central Africa away game, to prepare them for the group stage of the CAF Champions League that will kick off 8 July against DR Congo's Mazembe in Cairo.
Ahli were drawn with bitter rivals Zamalek and Berekum Chelsea of Ghana.
Under Egyptian coach Hossam El-Badri, Ahli started their Turkish camp Sunday and are set to play three friendlies, on 20, 24 and 27 June.
Zamalek will play three friendly matches in their Cairo camp in order to prepare for their away CAF Champions League Group stage opener against Ghanaian side Chelsea on 7 July.