Should reigning continental champions Egypt miss out on the first FIFA World Cup™ on African soil next year, it would surely rate as one of the biggest shocks of the qualifying phase. Yet such an eventuality would not be without precedent, as the Pharaohs have only twice before graced the game's premier competition despite triumphing a record six times at continental level.
In the race for South Africa 2010 most observers regarded Egypt as a shoo-in for qualification, not least because they won the last two editions of the CAF African Cup of Nations. Also in their favour was the fact that Hassan Shehata, one of the country's most respected coaches and the man who led them to those twin triumphs in 2006 and 2008, had agreed to stay on at the helm.
Yet despite being overwhelming favourites to top their group, the north Africans had a terrible start to their qualifying campaign. After only drawing with the unfancied Zambians at home in their opening fixture, the Pharaohs then slumped to a 3-1 defeat in Algeria to hand the initiative in the group to the Fennecs, who remain three points ahead of them.
This weekend Shehata's side travel to Chililabombwe for a vital showdown with Zambia, where failure to match Algeria's result against Rwanda would bring an abrupt end to Egypt's qualification hopes. It is a task made harder by the fact that their opponents like nothing better than to attack, especially when playing at home.
When faced with adversity in recent years, Egypt have frequently turned to Mohamed Aboutrika, the attacking midfielder who played an integral part in the team's 2006 African triumph and scored the winner in the final of the same competition two years later. Yet even the man dubbed the "Smiling Assassin" - a reference to his lethal finishing and cheerful demeanour - was subdued when assessing his side's chances of reaching South Africa.
"We have an almost-impossible mission, but it's a situation we're familiar with. We know that winning away against an attack-minded Zambia will be far from easy, but as ever we'll do our best to triumph and keep our qualification hopes alive. This is a very good Zambia side, even if they've not had the best of luck in the group, especially in their two matches against Algeria."
Aboutrika, who achieved iconic status with club side Al Ahly after scoring their stoppage-time winner against CS Sfaxien in the final of the 2006 CAF Champions League, refused to be drawn further on the Pharaohs' Group C prospects: "I don't want to say anything more about our chances. It's clear Algeria are the favourites now, but as long as there's hope, we'll try our best."
Though Egypt will be without a host of influential players for the Zambia game, including the likes of Mido, Mohamed Zidan, Emad Moteab, Mahmoud Fathallah and Al-Sayed Hamdy, the Al Ahly player insisted his side would not be lacking in motivation.
"Of course I wish these players were with us as we could really use their experience in these circumstances," he added. "That said he we're all clear on the challenge ahead of us. It would be harsh for us to miss out on the World Cup, firstly because we're African champions but also because, for many of my generation, this could be our last chance to take part."
Egypt's opponents Zambia are still mathematically in the running and will be going all out for the win they need to keep their slim hopes alive. Group leaders Algeria host the already-eliminated Rwandans and will be hoping for an emphatic victory to secure qualification this weekend in the event of Egypt slipping up. A similar result for both the Fennecs and Pharaohs would leave everything resting on the final game between the pair in Cairo next Wednesday.