Mohamed Salah vs. Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani: Egypt and Uruguay's shootout between superstars
Hector Cuper's prematch news conference was drawing to a close when a local journalist stepped forward with a gift. It was a knee-length pair of heavy-duty felt boots and they were handed over, he said, in honour of Mohamed Salah's birthday.
The slightly laboured joke was that they would keep the Egypt forward warm, although conditions in Yekaterinburg have not exactly been arctic. Cuper laughed, said the weather had been perfect so far, and we may never know whether this particular Russian souvenir finds its intended recipient.
Besides, Salah stands to receive the present he really wanted. While he turns 26 on Friday, the event of far more importance is Egypt's Group A opener against Uruguay. Nineteen days after his injury in the Champions League final brought fears he would be ruled out of the World Cup, the signs are that he will be declared fit to start.
"I can almost 100 percent say he will play, save for any unforeseen factors at the last minute," Cuper said, leaving open the prospect that Salah will not be risked but making it as clear as possible that he would like his talisman to start.
Salah trained on the Ekaterinburg Arena pitch with his teammates as planned half an hour later; he was noticeably reluctant to join in with a series of "windmill" arm movement exercises early on in the session. But given the nature of his shoulder problem, that was hardly a surprise. It is possible Cuper was engaging in a little kidology, although the benefits of that would seem unclear: Nobody has long to shine at a World Cup and, to do that, Egypt need Salah.
Their opening opponents know how that feels. Uruguay's double-barrelled attack of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez is arguably the most lethal in the tournament, and Oscar Tabarez's priority will be that both are able to contribute positively. Cavani is yet to perform consistently at a World Cup; Suarez has scored five times in the last two tournaments but is far better remembered for his handball against Ghana in 2010 and the bite on Giorgio Chiellini four years ago that effectively ruined his -- and Uruguay's -- tournament.
The pair are both 31 now; there is scant chance that they will be able to play roles this prominent in 2022. If they are to propel Uruguay to something extraordinary, then their time is now.
In a sense the same goes for Salah and Egypt, primarily because the Liverpool man is at his peak and represents a country whose depth of talent is weaker. If Salah is fit and can muster the kind of run he produced for the Champions League runners-up last season, there are no limits; he is that good, we know that now.
World Cups reward streaks of form that, at club level, would seem relatively moderate in length, and that is why Friday's game provides such intrigue. These are two mid-sized football nations, spearheaded by genuinely special footballers: if one of them hits the ground running then their momentum, particularly with Russia and Saudi Arabia likely to be obliging opponents further down the track, could pick up irresistibly.
"Why not?" asked Cuper when it was put to him that Salah could, despite all the hand-wringing, finish as top scorer in the tournament. "He has responded very well and shown great character. I think we see great players here and Mohamed Salah can fight for a place as top scorer or one of the top players at this World Cup."
Cuper pointed out that Uruguay are "Not only about Cavani and Suarez ... behind them is an entire team," and Salah would probably wish for a softer comeback than a battle with the Atletico Madrid twin towers, Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez.
Likewise, Egypt will have to be about more than Salah if they are to win the shoot-out between the superstars: West Brom's Ahmed Hegazy and the Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny are among those charged with bolting the door for a team that tends to do its best work on the counter.
And that is how the game may be fought out: nip and tuck, perhaps decided on the break, with both sides mindful that victory would make them overwhelming favourites to win the group.
"We have to be realistic: We're going to be playing against the best teams and players in the world," Cuper said of Egypt's chances.
If Salah is passed fit on Saturday then Cuper can call on one of the latter -- and for Egypt, like Uruguay, anything might just be possible.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.