Mohamed Salah scored with a trademark left-foot shot and lapped up the praise from fans as host Egypt sailed through to the knockout stages of the African Cup of Nations on Wednesday.
The Liverpool forward also set up the first goal for captain Ahmed el-Mohamady in a 2-0 win over Congo.
Salah’s goal two minutes before halftime was typical. He feigned to go one way, and then the other, before curling the ball inside the near post as two defenders tried in vain to stop him.
He cupped his hands to his ears as celebrating fans chanted “Mo! Mo! Mo!”, then twirled his hands in the air as if conducting an orchestra of 75,000 Egyptians at Cairo International Stadium.
Egypt has started with two wins from two in Group A and has not conceded a goal as it seeks to return to the pinnacle of African soccer.
The North African team is the record seven-time champion but won its last title in 2010 and missed the next three tournaments during a slump in form. The return came two years ago, when Salah and Egypt made the final but lost to a late goal to Cameroon.
Salah and Egypt did not have it all their own way against Congo.
Congo twice hit the crossbar in the opening half. First, when captain Marcel Tisserand stuck his foot out at a corner in the 10th minute and when Jonathan Bolingi’s header beat Egypt goalkeeper Mohamed el-Shenawy in the 40th but not the frame of the goal.
In between those two close calls, the host nation took the lead.
Salah provided a dipping cross and el-Mohamady pounced after indecision in the Congo defense. He flicked the loose ball up with his left foot and volleyed it with the outside of his right into the corner of the net.
The goal all of Egypt was waiting for arrived in the 43rd.
Mahmoud Trezeguet found Salah as he sprinted away on a counterattack and Egypt’s superstar, arguably Africa’s best player right now, did the rest.
Egyptian players celebrated at fulltime by kneeling down and pressing their heads onto the grass in prayer.
Salah’s performance helped re-focus the team and fans to the task at hand following news earlier Wednesday that midfielder Amr Warda had been expelled from Egypt’s team in the light of allegations he sexually harassed women on social media.
Former champion Nigeria became the first team to reach the last 16 after defender Kenneth Omeruo’s second-half goal delivered a 1-0 win over Guinea in Group B.
The Nigerians were unimpressive in the first half in Alexandria in 30-degree heat (86 Fahrenheit) but lifted their game in the second. Alex Iwobi’s rasping shot was pushed away by Guinea goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone and Ahmed Musa almost set up Odion Ighalo on a counterattack.
Omeruo did what the forwards had not been able to do when he beat Kone with a glancing header at the near post from Moses Simon’s corner in the 73rd minute.
Nigeria, which won the title in 2013, also has two wins from two games. It beat Burundi 1-0 in its first match and needs a draw from its last fixture against Madagascar to finish top.
In the other game in Egypt’s group, Uganda and Zimbabwe drew 1-1 in an encounter full of goalscoring chances.
Uganda striker Emmanuel Okwi did make his opportunity count early on when he tapped the ball in after goalkeeper George Chigova parried a shot. Zimbabwe equalized through Khama Billiat just before the break.
Zimbabwe’s Knowledge Musona hit the crossbar when he was unmarked in front of an open goal, the worst of a series of misses by him. Patrick Kaddu also blazed a shot over the bar from a similar position for Uganda.
Uganda is second in the group after a win and a draw, in prime position to join Egypt in the last 16.
GERALD IMRAY I Associated Press