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New look Egypt gives fans something to cheer about

CAIRO — The Pharaohs have at last given Egyptians something to cheer about and, not surprisingly, Liverpool’s Mohammed Salah played a big part in it.

A record seven-time African champion, the Pharaohs thrashed Niger 6-0 in African Cup of Nations qualifying on Saturday, their first competitive match since their miserable run in the World Cup in Russia where the team lost all three group matches.

It was also the Pharaohs’ first win in nearly a year. Egypt last won a competitive match in October when Salah converted from the spot in injury time against Republic of Congo for a 2-1 win that secured the Pharaohs’ return to the World Cup for the first time since 1990.

Salah had two penalties saved, but he made amends with two goals and two assists. But while that is to be expected from a player on FIFA’s three-man shortlist for its Player of the Year Award, what was surprising Saturday was the Pharaohs’ fresh approach under new coach Javier Aguirre.

Doing away with the cautious tactics of his predecessor — Argentina’s Hector Cuper — Aguirre appears to favor a pressing, attacking football that was on full display Saturday against Niger.

The Mexican has also injected new blood into the team, giving several young players their first taste of international football. In defense, Baher El-Mohammdi of Egypt’s Ismaili had his international debut. Playing his first game for the Pharaohs in nearly four years was Ali Ghazal of the Vancouver Whitecaps, and put in a towering performance in midfield.

Salah Mohsen, a 20-year-old who plays for Cairo giants al-Ahly, marked his international debut with a dream performance, scoring the Pharaohs’ fifth goal after a one-two with Salah after he came off the bench early in the second half.

The new look also allowed two old timers — Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny and Ahmed Elmohamady of Aston Villa — to shine in Saturday’s match.

With Ghazal the main defensive midfielder, Elneny was given sufficient leeway to abandon his customary defensive role and push forward, creating a multitude of chances and scoring Egypt’s final goal in the dying minutes.

Elmohamady, a right-back who was unused in Russia but given the captain’s band on Saturday, gave Niger’s defense a headache with his forward runs, sending several dangerous crosses including one that Salah converted for his second goal.

Salah himself was not deployed in his customary position on the right wing or as a striker. Instead, Aguirre gave him an attacking midfielder’s slot, a role he seemed to revel given his stellar performance and the number of chances he created up front.

Saturday’s win catapulted Egypt to the top spot in the qualifying group ahead of Tunisia, Swaziland and Niger, but the North Africans who beat Egypt in the first group match will retake that spot if they beat Swaziland later on Sunday.

The top two teams of each of the 12 groups qualify for the African Nations’ Cup in Cameroon next year.