Egypt sorely missed rested captain and star forward Mohamed Salah on Friday as it laboured to a 1-0 win over Ethiopia in the final round of Africa Cup of Nations qualifying.
The record seven-time African champions dominated possession in sweltering Cairo, but had only a 37th-minute Mostafa Fathy goal to show for their supremacy.
Fathy struck when Ethiopia goalkeeper Seid Aregawi could only parry a stinging close-range shot from Eintracht Frankfurt forward Omar Marmoush.
Egypt did have the ball in the net three times at the June 30 Stadium in the Egyptian capital, but efforts from Hamdy Fathy and Sam Morsy were disallowed by the Gabonese referee for fouls.
Prolific Liverpool scorer Salah, the subject of a recent transfer bid by Saudi Arabian club Al Ittihad, is expected to join his Egyptian teammates for a September 12 friendly against Tunisia.
“I wanted to grant him (Salah) a well-deserved rest after he played seven consecutive matches in the past 23 days,” Egypt coach Rui Vitoria told an eve-of-match press conference.
“Mohamed will rejoin the squad after the Ethiopia match. We cannot afford to take any unnecessary risks with him.”
Only pride was at stake as Egypt, whose last Cup of Nations title came in 2010, had secured a place at the finals three months ago while Ethiopia were eliminated at the same time.
Victory for Egypt avenged its sole loss in Group D — a 2-0 defeat away to Ethiopia last year that led to the sacking of coach Ehab Galal and hiring of Portuguese Vitoria.
Guinea was the other qualifiers from the group and complete their six-match schedule in Malawi on Saturday.
Like Egypt, Mali won five of six matches, finishing a successful Group G campaign by hammering bottom team South Sudan 4-0 in Bamako, where Komary Doumbia scored twice.
Eswatini completed a remarkable set of Group B results by drawing 0-0 away to already-qualified Burkina Faso, who hosted the match in Morocco because they lack an international-standard stadium.
Last-placed Eswatini drew its three away matches against Togo, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso, but lost all three home games.
Defending champions Senegal and hosts the Ivory Coast are among 18 countries who have qualified for the January 13-February 11 African showpiece.
The remaining six places will be filled on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, with five-time champions Cameroon among those seeking qualification.