(Adds coaches’ quotes)
By Mark Trevelyan
YEKATERINBURG, Russia, June 15 (Reuters) - Uruguay’s Jose Gimenez scored with a thunderous 89th minute header to deal Egypt a 1-0 defeat in their World Cup opener on Friday, just as the North Africans appeared to have escaped with a point despite missing key striker Mohamed Salah.
Gimenez rose perfectly to meet a Carlos Sanchez free kick and score the goal that broke a 48-year Uruguayan ‘curse’ of failing to win their opening game at World Cup finals.
“In the history of football we have broken a spell,” said Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez, portraying the country’s World Cup campaign as a matter of life and death.
“We either die or we kill, we have to keep progressing,” he told reporters after a result that improves Uruguay’s already strong chances of advancing to the last-16 from a group that also includes hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt came within minutes of surviving largely thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy, who bravely dived to snatch the ball from Luis Suarez’ feet and then flung himself through the air to tip a Edinson Cavani volley wide.
Cavani also hit the post as Uruguay gained in strength and purpose the longer the game progressed, seemingly buoyed by the realisation that Salah would not even make an appearance from the bench.
Until then Egypt had rarely looked in trouble in a scrappy match at the less-than-packed Yekaterinburg Arena, though without Salah they also did little to threaten the Uruguay goal.
Speculation over the Liverpool striker, who injured his shoulder in the Champions League final against Real Madrid last month, had dominated the build-up to the match and obsessed the several-thousand Egyptians who had travelled to Yekaterinburg from as far afield as Texas and Sydney.
“Perhaps if Mo had been on the pitch today, the outcome would have been different but we can’t know that,” Egypt coach Hector Cuper told reporters.
The man who scored 44 goals for Liverpool last season would be fine for the next match against Russia on Tuesday, Cuper said, but he had decided after training on the eve of the Uruguay game not to take a risk with his talisman.
“At the end of the training session we examined him and there was some doubt if he fell or was hit by another player, and we wanted to avoid a risk today,” Cuper said. “We want to have him in top form for Russia and Saudi Arabia.”
Salah now has four more days to work on his fitness before Egypt face the hosts in St Petersburg, while Uruguay will play Saudi Arabia on Wednesday in Rostov. (Reporting by Mark Trevelyan, additional reporting by Shrivathsa Sdrihar Editing by Christian Radnedge)