There was drama aplenty in the second round of matches in Group 1 this week. After Group 1's opening fixtures, which saw Egypt beat Trinidad and Tobago 4-1 before Paraguay and Italy played out a scoreless draw, most observers expected the host country to progress smoothly to the knockout phase of the FIFA U-20 Word Cup 2009. However, when Paraguay's Paniagua struck a last-gasp winner past Egypt's Aly Lotfi on matchday two, the Pharaohs suddenly found the tables had turned.
Thursday's showdown between Egypt and Italy will now decide if the hosts can join the already-qualified Azzurrini in the next round. With the pressure firmly on the home side, their passionate supporters will be doing everything possible to help the team progress in the tournament.
Despite the daunting prospect of taking on the hosts in Cairo, Italy midfielder Andrea Mazzarani told FIFA.com his side would be treating the fixture as just another game: "It's going to be very exciting to play Egypt in front of their home fans, but our preparations won't be different."
Though guaranteed a last-16 berth, Italy have yet to show the form that made them UEFA U-19 runners-up, and even their recent win against Trinidad and Tobago proved a struggle. However, Mazzarani insists he is not concerned and that his team expect to continue progressing.
"It's important for us to get the three points in this game, but, with one win and one draw to our names already, we're not in a bad position. What's more, you can see we're improving as we go on, which is traditionally what Italian teams do at finals. We tend to get better from one match to the next, so you should expect a much-improved performance next time out."
Whether the European side continue to improve or not, they have been nothing if not disciplined thus far. Much of the credit for this must go to their coach Francesco Rocca, a former Roma player now held in high regard in Italian coaching circles. Dissatisfied after his side's opening draw against Paraguay, he took positives from their result last time out, saying: "The players needed a win to boost their confidence and they managed to do that. Now they're gearing up to face the hosts in Cairo in front of all those fervent Egyptian supporters."
Rocca faces a formidable opponent on the opposition's bench in the shape of Miroslav Soukup. The Italy coach has some pedigree in this tournament, having guided his native Czech Republic to the final of the last edition, when they were narrowly beaten by Argentina.
Referring to his side's current plight, Soukup said, "We've got ourselves in a very difficult position. Our final match against Italy is now our passport to the next round, so it's more important than ever we play to win. Yes, we could have avoided this predicament, but that's football."
Though perplexed by his players' lack of mental fortitude against Paraguay, the coach has more pressing concerns ahead of the showdown in Cairo. "The biggest problem we have is the number of missing players. Salah Soliman and Ahmed Hegazy, who form the backbone of the defence, missed the last game through injury, and since then Mahmoud Toba has joined them on the treatment table. On top of that, Husaam Arafat is suspended after receiving yellow cards in both our games."
Despite the testing circumstances, Soukup remains composed and more than ready for the challenge. "It's at times like these when team spirit shines through, so we'll make sure we're prepared to take that next step."
With massive support expected from the Egyptian public tomorrow night, one thing is for certain: the Pharaohs will not be lacking in motivation or encouragement when they play for the tournament lives in Cairo.