A goalkeeper is indisputably one of the most critical players in football.
And habitual clean sheets are crucial in winning matches and tournaments. After four rounds of Africa Cup of Nations matches, for Egypt -there is more to talk about the seven-time continental champions.
Just like a steam train, the Pharaohs have been gaining heat with every match and their momentum has been building slowly, but steadily.
Since coming in as a substitute for injured compatriot Ahmed El-Shenawy in their opening Group D match against Mali, legendary goalkeeper Essam El Hadary has been steady between the posts. And after 360 minutes of somewhat good football, El Hadary is yet to pick the ball from his net.
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Covered by the able legs of Al Ahly duo of Ahmed Hegazy and Ahmed Ibrahim and Aly Mosaad of Zamalek, his has been a good ride, no doubt.
And it is this formidable form El Hadary and company will be relying on when they face Burkina Faso in tonight’s (10pm Kenyan time) first semifinal in Libreville.
And given their understandable absence from the last three editions, their intentions are clear.
“Our missing in action was beyond us, but we are happy to be here. We must prove that we are the greatest around and go all the way to the final,” said the 44-year-old goalkeeper, whose lateral movement has been second to none.
On loose balls, he has constantly remained focused and unmoved. It relentlessly ends up in his hands. His sheer antagonism and fortitude have never been in doubt. He is always there, barking instructions to his Back Four.
To advancing strikers, he is their worst nightmare and to Hegazy and company, a constant reminder of a true leader.
Since making his Egyptian debut in 1998, there has been no other conceivable outcome for El Hadary. His has been a winning mentality and will be glad to carry it on to the Stade de l’Amitie, venue for tonight’s epic match.
But more than anything else, the keeper will want to bring to mind memories of the 1998 Afcon semifinal against Burkina Faso. He was part of that squad that won 2-0 and eventually lifted the title, their fourth, with a similar score against South Africa. Granted, it was 19 years ago, but it can be repeated.
But the Egyptians will be without Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny, who is sidelined with a calf injury.
On their part, Burkina Faso also enjoy an unbeaten record as they prepare to face the Egyptians. They have picked two wins and two draws in their four rounds of matches.
After The Stallions lost 1-0 to Nigeria in the 2013 final and finished fourth in the 1998 edition, the opportunity is here for head coach Paulo Duarte’s men to show they are ready to join the ranks of Africa’s top dogs.
“This is not going to be easy. We know real battle starts here, but I ask my players to maintain their cool and stay focused,” said Duarte.