- Associated Press - Monday, November 6, 2017

CAIRO (AP) - Egypt coach Hector Cuper defended his tactics on Monday, saying a different strategy may not have led the Pharaohs to what will be their first World Cup in 28 years.

Egypt has gathered in Cairo for the first time since Oct. 8, when it qualified for the World Cup with a game to spare after beating Republic of Congo 2-1 to top Africa Group E.

They kick off that last qualifier, against Ghana, on Sunday.

Yet, despite the long-awaited qualification, Cuper has been widely criticized in Egypt for his cautious tactics and heavy reliance on Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah. Some in the local media have mockingly dubbed the Argentine’s strategy to be “Pass it to Salah,” and others have gone so far as to say he should be fired.

Egyptian football officials side with Cuper, the coach since 2015, and have pledged to keep him through the World Cup in Russia next year.

Cuper answered the criticism on Monday at a packed news conference at Cairo’s 100,000-seat stadium, before the national squad trained.

“The team may have the potential to perform better, and we could have changed our tactics, but we may also not have been going to Russia as we are now,” Cuper said through an interpreter.

“In football, not everyone can agree on a single set of tactics. Sometimes, even realizing all the set objectives is not enough for the sport’s officials. It’s natural.

“Sometimes, I myself make a wrong assessment and it’s possible that Egypt could have qualified for the World Cup with a different coach … my abilities may have their limitations, and with another coach you could have played better, braver, and attacked more.”

To criticism that he has relied heavily on overseas-based players, Cuper said he’s tried 50 players in his 2 ½-year tenure, and he and his staff have tirelessly watched domestic games with a view to recruiting new talent. But he cautioned that bringing in new faces won’t be easy at this stage.

“We watch and we analyze to see who is better and more suitable,” he said. “The players already in the squad know their places are not guaranteed. Even my job is not guaranteed.”

The priority for the Ghana match will be on little-used players already in the squad. Cuper defended leaving Salah out of the squad for the Ghana game, saying the striker was “very exhausted, both physically and emotionally” when he was last on international duty. He, instead, called up striker Mahmoud Abdel-Razeq, better known by his nickname Sheekabala, for the first time since 2014. Sheekabala has been in impressive form for Saudi club Al Raed.

“He has developed in a big way recently and he could get to play against Ghana,” Cuper said.

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