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Surprise Egypt call-up for troubled Shikabala pays off

(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

By HAMZA HENDAWI

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) A surprise call-up and a superb goal could add up to a spot at the World Cup for Egyptian journeyman Shikabala.

The 31-year-old forward, whose real name is Mahmoud Abdel-Razeq, scored in the 61st minute of Egypt's final Group E qualifier at Ghana. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, but the result was unimportant because Egypt had already won the group and qualified for next year's World Cup in Russia.

For Shikabala, the match was anything but inconsequential.

He showed energy, commitment and flashes of the skills that dazzled fans before he became something of a cautionary tale with his on-and-off-the-field troubles. His short stints at clubs in Egypt, Greece, Portugal and the United Arab Emirates indicated his restlessness. He now plays for Saudi club al-Raed.

His selection by Egypt coach Hector Cuper for the Ghana match was Shikabala's first since 2014. And besides scoring his team's lone goal, Shikabala frequently fell back to help out on defense and often seemed focused on creating chances for his teammates up front.

"He has developed in a big way recently," Cuper said last week.

Cuper, an Argentine who has been in charge of the Pharaohs since 2015, rested several key players for the Ghana match, fielding a team that featured eight changes from the squad that defeated the Republic of Congo on Oct. 8. Mohammed Salah was left out so he can focus on Liverpool's Premier League and European campaigns, while West Bromwich Albion defender Ahmed Hegazy did not play.

Prominent among newcomers were left back Karim Hafez from second-division French club Lens and Wigan midfielder Sam Morsy. Amr Marei of Tunisian club Etoile du Sahel also made his first start, playing as a lone striker.

In another move that may well be a prelude to a permanent change, Shereef Ikramy started in goal in place of 44-year-old Essam el-Hadary. The 34-year-old Ikramy made a series of spectacular saves to deny Ghana a late winner in a performance that could tempt Cuper to have a change of heart about who gets to be the goalkeeper in Russia.

Ikramy's performance may also have erased memories of some of the mind-boggling blunders he committed while playing for Egyptian club al-Ahly in its latest African Champions' Cup campaign.

El-Hadary, something of a celebrity in Egypt, hopes to be the oldest player ever to play at a World Cup and is certain of a place in the squad, although Ikramy or Zamalek goalkeeper Ahmed el-Shennawy club could very well start in his place.

El-Hadary, a member of the squad that won three straight African Cup titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010, remains capable of some match-saving saves, but he has also shown in recent years some lapses of judgment and occasional slow reflexes.

Updated November 13, 2017

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