Hassan Shehata, the semi-mythical coach of Egypt, insists his three-time winners of the African Cup of Nations “will come good” when they play South Africa at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Ahead of perhaps the biggest game in Africa this year, Shehata’s team – and their fans - are still reeling from the Spring Revolution which dislodged president Hosni Mubarak last month.
And on the field, the Pharoahs, for so long the undisputed kings of the dark continent, find themselves in uncharted territory too after an unimpressive draw against Sierra Leone in Cairo and an historic defeat in niggling Niger.
But Shehata, 61, who includes Borussia Dortmund forward Mohamed Zida and Sunderland defender Ahmed Elmohamady in his 23-man squad currently training at Balfour Park in Johannesburg, told FIFA: “I’m used to being criticised and blamed. I’ve been through it all before. All it does is increase my determination, because I really am very confident in my players. They’ve always come good when called upon.”
With Bafana Bafana top of Group G and playing in front of a capacity crowd at Ellis Park, Shehata added: “It should be a great match between Africa’s top two teams. We’ve always worn the colours of our nation with honour and shown great strength in our performances, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.
“South Africa are serious, experienced opponents, and they got a big boost from their solid performances at the last World Cup, which they hosted.
“We know what’s expected of us, and we’re going to try our hardest to deliver the win our supporters are hoping for.”
Without a game since January 22 because of the unrest at home, Shehata’s side have slumped to 35rdin the FIFA rankings and there is a real chance they will become the firsts reigning African champions not to qualify if they lose on Saturday to the side now ranked 46th in the world .
But his assistant coach Shawki Gharib, who won the competition as a player in 1986, insists: “Our boys actually needed a bit of a break after six years of continuous competition. We should see this situation as an opportunity.
“Many people think that our lack of matches during this time will have negative consequences. I’m not so sure.
"There’s no doubt it will have had an effect on the players physical condition, but there are solutions to that type of problem, such as planning more intensive training sessions.”
In nine games between the countries so far, both have won four. But Egypt will be boosted by their personal memories of Ellis Park – they beat World Cup holders Italy there at the 2009 Confederations Cup.
With Portsmouth’s 107-cap captain Aaron “Mbazo” Mokoena axed by coach Pitso Mosimane, Tottenham’s Steven Pienaar will take the captain’s armband – both he and Siphiwe Tshabalala share the honour of being the most-capped South Africans on show with 57 appearances each.
Mamelodi Sundowns striker Katlego Mphela, who missed South Africa's two previous Group G matches against the USA and Kenya, said: "It is good to be back in the squad and it means a lot to me as it indicates that the coach has faith in me. So now I need to repay that faith with a goal against Egypt. Our plan is to attack all the way."
Currently tied on 18 goals with Philemon Masinga, he needs one more to become Bafana Bafana’s third-best striker of all time, behind Shaun Bartlett (29) and the out-of-favour West Ham goal-getter Benni McCarthy, 31.
But “attacking all the way” against a side who have won the African Cup of Nations a record seven times may be a little rash. Boating nine of the players who won the last African Cup of Nations in Angola, the Pharoahs know failure could signal the end of many international careers, including that of 38-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary.
And in a nation still embroiled in a popular uprising, footballing defeat is the last thing Egyptians need.
Who the hell is Neal Collins (nealcol on Twitter)? See www.nealcollins.co.uk.