CAIRO: Africa Cup of Nations hosts Egypt are confident of defeating Zimbabwe Friday in the opening match of a tournament expanded to 24 teams and staged in mid-year for the first time.
Egypt lie 51 places higher on the world rankings ahead of the Group A clash, top the title betting at 5/1 with Zimbabwe 150/1, and have won three of the four previous Cup of Nations they hosted.
“We are the favorites to win the 2019 Africa Cup,” said 60-year-old coach Javier Aguirre, the first Mexican to guide a nation that has won the competition a record seven times.
“Egypt are playing at home, can count on passionate support and have Mohamed Salah, the best footballer in Africa.”
Salah has returned home after another stellar season with Liverpool, which he completed by scoring the first goal in a 2-0 Champions League final triumph over Tottenham Hotspur.
His 22 English Premier League goals last season gave him a share of the Golden Boot title with two fellow Africans, Senegalese Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon.
Aguirre says fears that his talisman may be jaded after a long season of Premier League and Champions League football are unfounded.
“Mohamed took a holiday after the Champions League final, did not play in our first warm-up match and only came on after half-time in the second,” he countered.
Egypt beat fellow qualifiers Tanzania and Guinea and what pleased Aguirre most was not the results, but the large number of scoring chances the Pharaohs created.
“We had about 20 chances to score against the Tanzanians and almost as many against the Guineans. That is very encouraging.”
Aguirre also dismissed the view that Egypt rely too heavily on Salah, saying: “We have selected 23 footballers who are totally committed to the cause of winning the Cup of Nations.
“It is impossible for one footballer to win a Cup of Nations on his own. Mohamed will receive tremendous support from his teammates.
“All the players are mentally and physically ready and we look forward to beginning our campaign with a victory over Zimbabwe.”
The countries have met only once in a Cup of Nations with Egypt winning 2-1 in Tunisia 15 years ago and both teams were eliminated after the first round.
Aguirre expects the Zimbabwe Warriors to be “a well organized team who will seek to score mainly through counterattacks and set pieces.
“We have studied videos of them and identified strengths and weaknesses. I do not believe they will take us by surprise.”
Zimbabwe coach and former captain Sunday Chidzambwa was keeping his thoughts to himself ahead of the tournament opener.
But captain and forward Knowledge Musona, who plays in Belgium, stressed that they must not become obsessed by Salah, despite the huge threat he poses.
“We must not just stop Salah, we must stop all the Egyptians. If we concentrate only on one, others will destroy us,” he warned.
“My boys must be prepared to contest every loose ball, defend and attack in numbers, and take our scoring chances. “Against Egypt in Cairo we are unlikely to get many scoring chances, so clinical finishing is essential.”
“We are not here to talk — we are here to play football. We are in Egypt to achieve success and make every Zimbabwean proud of us.
“While I would love to add to the three goals I scored in the qualifying competition, it does not matter who scores, as long as they are Zimbabwean.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda are the other teams in Group A and they meet Saturday at the same venue as the opening match.
Group winners and runners-up qualify for the knockout second round along with the best four of the six third-place finishers.