Egypt boss Javier Aguirre challenged Mohamed Salah to keep the host nation on course for Africa Cup of Nations glory and strengthen his claim to be crowned the world's best player - if he recovers from illness.
The Pharaohs continue their quest for a record-extending eighth continental crown with a last-16 clash against 1996 champions South Africa in Cairo on Saturday.
Salah played a key part in Egypt's serene progression to the knockout stages, scoring in the 2-0 wins over Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda that followed a slender 1-0 victory against Zimbabwe in their Group A opener.
🇪🇬 Egypt 🆚 South Africa 🇿🇦
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And Aguirre claimed the Liverpool forward, who missed Thursday's training session with a cold as a precautionary measure, will be the frontrunner to win the Ballon d'Or if he can cap another fine season by adding an AFCON title to his collection.
"Salah is a very modest person, an extraordinary player and has a nice personality with his team-mates," Aguirre told Cadena Ser.
"I see him so far struggling and struggling hard to win the Ballon d'Or. Why not? He is a Champions League winner with Liverpool. If he can lead Egypt to the African Cup of Nations, no one can keep the Ballon d'Or away from him."
Salah, a beaten finalist with Egypt two years ago, was told to sit out training two days before the game "so as not to worsen his condition".
But he will be given every chance of starting the last of the round-of-16 ties, with the winners at the Cairo International Stadium going on to face Nigeria or Cameroon in the quarters.
With or without Salah in Egypt's ranks, South Africa boss Stuart Baxter acknowledged the size of the task awaiting his side, who lost two of their three group games.
"My players know they can do a little bit better and they know they can be more efficient," Baxter said. "In the final third they know they can improvise a little bit more and I think they are looking forward to that challenge.
"Against the home nation, that may all fall to the ground if they overwhelm us, but I don’t think that is going to happen."
Players To Watch
🇪🇬 Egypt - Mohamed Salah
There is no playing down the importance of Salah to this Egypt side. He has been involved in six of their past 10 AFCON goals - four of his own and two assists - and his fitness is key to the hosts' hopes of progressing.
🇿🇦 South Africa - Percy Tau
Tau set up Bongani Zungu's winner against Namibia - his side's only goal in Egypt thus far. Heralded as one of the players to watch in the finals, a big performance is required from Brighton and Hove Albion forward if he is to seriously leave his mark on this year's competition.
KEY OPTA FACTS
- This will be the third meeting between Egypt and South Africa in the Africa Cup of Nations. The Pharaohs have won the previous two (1-0 in the group stages in 1996 and 2-0 in the 1998 final).
- Egypt have qualified for the next stage in 11 of their last 12 games in the knockout phase of the Africa Cup of Nations (W9 D2).
- South Africa have won only two of their previous 18 AFCON games (D7 L9).