Liverpool star Mohamed Salah gets a chance to rediscover his scoring touch when he plays for Egypt against Swaziland (controversially renamed eSwatini by the king) in the Africa Cup of Nations on Friday.
After notching up 44 goals for the English Premier League club in all competitions last season, the 26-year-old has managed only three this season, and just one in eight games since August.
When Salah last played for his country, he scored twice and missed two penalties as the record seven-time African champions romped to a 6-0 win over Niger in September.
Niger are ranked 105 in the world — 31 places above eSwatini — so Egypt can realistically hope to score goals at the Al-Salam Stadium in Cairo.
Salah is the pride of Egypt, having scored the best goal and finished third in the best player category behind Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo at the recent Fifa awards.
He is also among 30 contenders for the Ballon d’Or prize bestowed annually by France Football magazine.
His recent shortage of goals for Liverpool, and being substituted in a match at Chelsea, has drawn sympathy from Egyptian pundits.
“Salah must not look back at last season, whether it was his goal scoring or his exceptional form,” said Islam el-Shater in Al-Masry Al-Youm.
“He must do what his manager [Jürgen Klopp] asks of him so that he does not lose his starting place.”
Another columnist in that publication, Mohammed el-Bourmy, wrote: “Salah is being compared to Ronaldo and Messi and some possibly believed he could score 40 to 50 goals every season.
“He is not required to do that, but rather to have a good season with 20 goals to his name and enjoy himself.”
Football commentator Hassan el-Mistekawi noted that “the Salah smile is missing since the start of the season because of the pressure he is under to score”.
Though Egypt can boast about Salah, eSwatini have a caretaker coach and no stars, and the squad comprises locals and a sprinkling of players at South African second-tier clubs.
The countries will meet twice during the Cup of Nations window, with the return match next Tuesday in Manzini, where the Southern African nation lost 2-0 to Tunisia last month.
Tunisia tackle Niger, whose squad have been complaining of a “beans-and-water” diet and unpaid bonuses, and must believe they can collect points to stay top of group J.
Struggling Gabon must have been encouraged by the two goals Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored for Arsenal against Fulham as they begin life under new coach Daniel Cousin.
The Panthers have failed to spark in group C, losing away to Mali
and being held at home by Burundi, and need two wins over pointless South Sudan to get back into contention.
Other Premier League stars likely to feature include two teammates of Salah at Liverpool — Sadio Mane of Senegal and Naby Keita of Guinea.
Senegal tackle group A strugglers Sudan and will expect three points in Dakar and at least one from the return match in Khartoum, where saunalike conditions present a challenge.
Guinea share with Mali, Mauritania and Tunisia the distinction of having perfect records after two matchdays and should remain group H leaders by beating Rwanda in Conakry.
Côte d’Ivoire are playing catch-up in the same section after a shock home loss to the Guineans and hope several Premier League players can help them to overcome the Central African Republic. Eric Bailly of Manchester United will anchor the defence, Jean Michael Seri of Fulham is a midfield option and Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace offers pace in attack.
There are 48 fixtures spread over seven days, although doubts surround those between Ghana and Sierra Leone in Kumasi this Thursday and in Freetown on Monday.
Sierra Leone, banned by Fifa from international competitions because of government interference in the running of the sport, are racing against the clock to be reinstated. — AFP