Egypt star Mohamed Salah will aim to add the Africa Cup of Nations title to the Champions League he won with Liverpool this month – potentially cementing his claims for the Ballon d’Or in the process.
Hosts Egypt kick off the month-long continental showpiece when they face Zimbabwe in Cairo on Friday, with their chances of an eighth Africa Cup of Nations title likely to rest heavily on star striker Salah’s shoulders.
The man nicknamed ‘The Egyptian King’ recently joined up with the squad following a well-earned break after his Champions League exploits with Liverpool.
And while Salah, 27, will be looking to reverse the disaster of the World Cup in Russia last summer – where Egypt finished bottom of their group with three defeats in three games – the Liverpool man will also know that firing his team to glory on home soil will bolster his chances of earning football’s most coveted individual prize.
Salah finished sixth in last year’s Ballon d’Or voting – which was won by Real Madrid and Croatia playmaker Luka Modric.
That was despite a blistering 2017/18 season with Liverpool during which the Egyptian striker hit a record 32 Premier League goals.
This season Salah managed 30 goals across all competitions – including 22 in the league and five in Europe – but crucially ended on the winning side as Liverpool beat Tottenham in the Champions League final in Madrid.
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Among the contenders for the Ballon d’Or this year will be the usual suspects of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as Salah’s Liverpool teammates Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane.
While individual brilliance can tip the vote, equally as crucial is converting that into major trophies with club and country.
Messi enjoyed another incredible season in which he again won the Golden Shoe as the top scorer in Europe with 36 La Liga goals, but fell short in the Champions League where Liverpool pulled off a famous semi-final second leg comeback against Barca at Anfield.
The Argentine is also struggling with his country at the Copa America as they face potential elimination at the group stage.
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Ronaldo finished his first season with Juventus as Italian champion and also captained Portugal to UEFA Nations League glory in June – where they beat a Dutch team including defensive colossus Virgil van Dijk in the final.
Again, though, Ronaldo and Juventus fell short in Europe.
Consequently, the Ballon d’Or field this year appears wide open, and observers including Jose Mourinho have suggested that national team accolades could determine when the prize ends up.
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Salah could tip the balance in his favor if he can be the driving force behind Egypt’s Cup of Nations campaign as the Pharaohs bid to reverse their 2-1 defeat in the final to Cameroon in Gabon two years ago and claim the title for the first time since 2010.
They will have home advantage this year as the 24-nation tournament is held in six venues across four host cities.
Egypt are the most successful nation in the tournament’s history, having won the title seven times, including three on the spin between 2006 and 2010.
This year they face a group containing opening game opponents Zimbabwe, as well as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Egypt will start as among the favorites at the tournament, although a Senegal team containing Salah’s Liverpool teammate Mane will also be fancied to do well, and are the highest-ranked team in the tournament based on FIFA’s listings.
Tunisia could also be a threat, as well as Nigeria and Morocco – all of whom are ranked above Egypt.
CATCH OF THE DAY
Salah looked refreshed as he enjoyed a time-out following his Champions League victory with Liverpool, posting holiday snaps of himself fishing to his legion of social media followers.
He sat out a warm-up win against Tanzania last week and only featured for 30 minutes as a second-half substitute in the 3-1 victory over Guinea on Sunday.
The star forward has scored 39 goals in 63 appearances for the national team, but has not always appeared settled when with the national team, reportedly being involved in an image rights row with the Egyptian Football Federation as well as accusing them of allowing “disturbances” during the World Cup last summer.
This summer, though, Salah’s hopes of football’s biggest individual accolade may well rest with what he can achieve collectively with his nation.
AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Dates: June 21 – July 19
Venues (name and city): Cairo International Stadium (Cairo); 30 June Stadium (Cairo), Al Salam Stadium (Cairo), Alexandria Stadium (Alexandria), Suez Stadium (Suez), Ismailia Stadium (Ismailia) (RT)