While the Pharaohs have a superior pedigree at the finals, observers are backing the Lions of Teranga to claim an unprecedented honour
Purists may have covered their eyes in horror as Cameroon’s egregious penalties cost them a place in Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final, with Egypt progressing to play Senegal.
Perhaps, even supporters of the Lions of Teranga desired a meeting with the Indomitable Lions, filled with the desire for retribution. It was the Central African nation that thwarted Senegal’s golden generation 20 years back, defeating a side captained by Aliou Cisse in 2002 on penalties after a goalless final.
The opportunity of avenging that loss was one the West Africans may have relished, although they have to make do with beating Africa’s finest nation in Afcon history to secure an elusive crown.
For some reason, it seems somewhat fitting that this year’s decider is being contested by the runners-up from the last two editions.
The Pharaohs probably still rue Vincent Aboubakar’s 88th-minute winner in the 2017 competition, a strike that gave them little time to mount any prolonged fightback in Libreville.
As for Senegal, the 2019 disappointment of not doing enough in the 88 minutes that followed Baghdad Bounedjah’s lucky effort must have rankled. The majority of their shots were from distance, with Algeria uninterested in nothing but seeing out their early advantage for a second Afcon title and first since 1990.
Egypt, seeking an eighth crown, have shed their dispiriting 2019 showing on home turf to return to another decider, regardless of observers’ opinion of them.
Indeed, Carlos Queiroz’s team are not particularly liked. They can be ugly and uninspiring to watch, barely pulling up trees in the attacking third while relying on their organisation at the back to keep opponents at arm’s length.
It is not fun to watch. It has not won admirers en route to the final.
The North Africans have netted in half of their six games preceding Sunday’s decider, scoring only four times and not conceding an open-play goal since that Kelechi Iheanacho effort saw Nigeria beat Queiroz’s troops 1-0 in the opening fixture of the group stage.
They are likely to dismiss suggestions pigeonholing them a one-man team, overly reliant on the star quality of Mohamed Salah, even though the raw facts indicate they lean on him significantly.
Egypt’s talisman has played a part in three of the team’s four goals — netting twice and smoothly assisting Trezeguet in that 2-1 comeback win over Morocco — taking his total goal contributions since making his Afcon debut in 2017 to nine. No player in that time has more.
The only Pharaohs goal not involving Salah came from a set-piece, and it is striking they have failed to score in games where the Liverpool superstar has not come up trumps—Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon—with the latter pair seeing Queiroz’s team rely on spot-kicks after a gruelling four hours of football altogether.
Regardless, this Egypt side are no slouches, making up for their dearth in inventiveness with a strong mentality and tenacity that has seen them outlast several challenges in the knockout rounds.
By contrast, opponents Senegal have won the hearts of many observers, especially after strong performances in the quarter-finals and semis.
Those displays, coupled with the Lions’ previous Afcon heartache, have seen most neutrals develop a level of fondness for Cisse’s team.
Their journey to successive finals and a third in the nation’s history has not been without difficulty, though, with a coronavirus outbreak on the eve of the competition slowing down their progress as a consequence.
Frankly, performances throughout the group stage were an eyesore and a concern. They netted only once in three games against Zimbabwe, Guinea and Malawi—a 97th-minute Sadio Mane penalty in their opener—showings that made many question Africa’s top-ranked nation.
Their Liverpool star has since shown something different, with top-class displays in 3-1 victories over Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso in the knockout rounds.
Two goals and as many assists, taking the attacker’s goal contributions in the knockout stages to four, adds to the feeling the pre-tournament favourites have hit form at the right time.
Still, it will count for little if they are not third-time lucky on Sunday night.
Both stars have highlighted the importance of success in Cameroon at various times in the last month, further stressing what it means to their respective nations.
“This trophy for me would be completely different. It would be the closest one to my heart,” said Salah, earlier in the tournament.
His Liverpool teammate reckons the Lions’ 2019 loss will stand them in good stead heading into their Egypt encounter.
“Experience is a good asset,” Mane said after Senegal beat Burkina Faso. “We played a final last time, so we have experience and we will try to win this trophy.”
Pharaohs boss Queiroz has been bullish, declaring that his side fears no one even if they retain a reasonable level of respect for their opponents. Cisse, on the other hand, is impressed by his troops’ mentality, believing winning is all that matters on Sunday.
Both sides have a lot riding on events at the Olembe Stadium, and they have their respective managers’ battle cry to fuel their ambition to claim the title.
Egypt strive for Afcon immortality with an eighth title in their sights. Senegal desire an elusive crown at the third attempt to soothe and gratify an entire nation used to disappointment at this stage.
There is a palpable sense of jeopardy, yet the ultimate ambition for continental glory eclipses any prevalent fear of failure.