Egypt's Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring a goal (AFP)
Mohamed Salah proved Egypt's hero, scoring twice including a last-gasp penalty to send the Pharaohs to their first World Cup finals since 1990 following a 2-1 home win over Congo in a dramatic and nerve-jangling clash on Sunday.
More than 80,000 supporters at Alexandria's Borg El-Arab erupted into ecstasy when Salah broke the deadlock three minutes past the hour mark as Egypt looked close to realizing a long-held dream, having made the last of their two World Cup appearances 27 years ago in Italy.
However, the atmosphere was subdued and many fans shed tears when Congo's Arnold Bouka equalized with a half-volley after a defensive lapse with three minutes remaining.
With the clock ticking down in stoppage time and a victory desperately required, Salah invoked memories of Emad Meteb's famous last-gasp header against Algeria in 2009 when he sent the keeper the wrong way from the spot after substitute Mahmoud Trezeguet was hauled down in the area.
After years of underachievement on the international level, Egypt were finally given something to cheer about after reaching next year's Russia finals with one match to spare in Group E.
They remained on top of the group with 12 points, gaining an unassailable four-point lead over Uganda. They face Ghana next month in a meaningless match in Kumasi.
The sell-out crowd in Alexandria remained glued to their seats following the final whistle, watching joyous scenes on the pitch as Salah was engulfed by ecstatic teammates.
Argentinean coach Hector Cuper smoothly led Egypt to the World Cup finals, with his blend of tactical nous, patience and discipline proving effective despite stinging criticism of what many deemed his overly-defensive approach.
Egypt are only the second African side to book a World Cup spot after Nigeria, and the second Arab nation to make it through to the Russia finals after Saudi Arabia.
Scarcity of chances
For all Egypt's territorial dominance, good chances were hard to come by as Congo's tight defence kept the likes of Salah, Ramadan Sobhi and lone striker Ahmed Kouka at bay.
Egypt primarily relied on the pace of Salah but repeated long balls to the in-form Liverpool winger were easily intercepted by Congo's defenders.
But the only first-half chance that fell to Egypt came when Salah made use of one of those balls in the 24th minute, skipping past Tobias Badila and rushing to the byline.
He sent in a low cross which was met by a half-hearted clearance from a Congo defender, only to fall into the path of central defender Ahmed Hegazi whose low shot was blocked by the outstretched legs of goalkeeper Barel Mouko with the goal at his mercy.
Congo looked more composed in the latter stages of the first half, at times looking slightly dangerous on the break.
The closest they came was a shot from Dzon Delarge which deflected off Hegazi and went over the bar.
Congo could have stunned Egypt early in the second half when Dylan Saint-Louis was found unmarked at the far post, with his volley forcing a superb one-handed save from 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary.
But Egypt swiftly regained their control and playmaker Saleh Gomaa, who replaced the injured Abdallah El-Said in the starting line-up, sent a weak shot into the keeper's hands after being fed by the impressive Salah.
The introduction of Turkey-based midfielder Trezeguet energized the lethargic frontline, with his marauding runs unsettling Congo's backline.
Egypt poured forward en masse and ended the resistance of Congo on 63 minutes.
A long ball by Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny was headed by Congo's Badila into the path of Salah, who pounced on the dreadful mistake to break clear and send a delicate left-foot shot over the advancing Mouko.
Egypt wasted some easy chances to put the result to bed and their hearts were broken in the 87th minute when a right-wing cross picked out the unmarked Bouka at the far post and he made no mistake with a half-volley.
But a World Cup qualification was meant to be and, deep into the five-minute stoppage time, Beranger Itoua hauled down Trezeguet and Salah stepped up to find the bottom corner and send the fans into raptures.
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