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Underdogs Egypt cannot be discounted

Take a poll of the countries tipped to win this year's African Cup of Nations and the chances are that, despite being defending champions, Egypt will be some way down the list, an afterthought kept in the shadows by the likes of Ghana, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.

However, the Pharaohs should be written off at a pundit's peril. Under an astute coach who boasts a history of success in the tournament, this is a cohesive unit whose side, in contrast to many of the more star-studded squads in action at this year's tournament, is based on a majority of homegrown talent, punctuated by a handful of foreign-based stars.

Egypt's record of qualifying for the World Cup may be unimpressive - two appearances, one in 1934 and one at Italia '90 mark the only times they have reached the finals - but none of their African counterparts have a better record in the Cup of Nations.

Inaugural champions in 1957, Egypt have since won the tournament four further times, most recently in 2006.They have made more finals appearances (21) than any other country, playing more games (73) and scoring more goals (113) in the process.

Egypt's head coach, Hassan Shehata, oversees a squad which has, in world terms, little star power. The 58-year-old coach, who played for Egypt in three African Cup of Nations tournaments himself, was in charge of the championship-winning squad two years ago and has a no-nonsense style that emphasises the team ethic above all others.

The Cup of Nations is often seen as a tournament which is as memorable for the emergence of individual players showcasing themselves for their own futures, as it is for great team performances.

Shehata, however, is a team man, as the example of his run-in with Mido in 2006 demonstrates. Egypt's star striker had rushed back from injury for the tournament but, with the semi-final against Senegal locked at 1-1, Shehata opted to substitute the-then Roma player.

Mido's reaction was to confront his coach in a touchline argument that had to be broken up by his replacement, Amr Zaki who, incidentally, went on to score the game's winning goal.

The fallout continued after the game, with Mido quoted as saying he was happy with the result for the team, but not for Shehata. The Egyptian FA took their coach's side and, in addition to kicking Mido out of the squad for the final, banned him from representing his country for six months.

Despite Mido's absence, Egypt prevailed in the final, defeating the Ivory Coast on penalties - the second time the Elephants had been vanquished by the Pharaohs in the tournament. The role of Shehata had such an impact on Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, that the head of state personally awarded the coach his winner's medal.

A disciplinarian he may be, but Shehata is a coach who has shown a capability to put aside personal issues for the sake of the team. Mido received his winners' medal and would return to nation team colours.

However, the Middlesbrough striker will miss this year's tournament, meaning Egypt will look to others for a goal threat.

Mohamed Zidan, the Hamburg striker, could be the man to step forward, less than two years since Shehata was quoted as saying he would never play for his country again after Zidan failed to join up with the Pharaohs' squad ahead of the 2006 Cup of Nations.

Joining Zidan as a key man for Egypt is Zaki, one of seventeen home-base players and one who is most likely to attract the attention of overseas scouts in Ghana. Mido's new teammate at Middlesbrough, Mohamed Shawky, is a key cog in midfield alongside Ahmed Hassan, a veteran of 130 caps who is set to play in a record-equalling seventh Cup of Nations, and 'the magician', Mohamed Aboutreika.

In qualifying, Egypt flattered to deceive. Though they won a group featuring Mauritania, Burundi and Botswana, their record showed three wins and three draws and saw them score only nine goals.

However, since the turn of the year, Shehata's men have shown some encouraging signs. Wins over Namibia and Mali, as well as a draw with Angola, suggest that a squad which features twelve of the 2006 champions could be getting on the right track at the right time.

In Ghana, the Pharaohs will be confident of progressing to the quarterfinals, given that their later matches are against two unheralded opponents, Sudan and Zambia.

In a further contrast to many of their rivals, there has been little controversy surrounding Egypt's preparations for this year's Cup of Nations. None of their players were held back by club managers and, injuries notwithstanding, there have been no obstacles for Shehata to getting together the squad he wants.

Two years ago, the cream of the African continent was welcomed to Egypt by a hoist nation which subsequently ran through them on the way to Cup of Nations glory. Even as hosts, Egypt began as outsiders and yet, under their shrewd coach, they became the second home team to lift the trophy in as many tournaments.

In 2008, they will be underdogs once again but, as history has shown, Egypt cannot be discounted.

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