The stage is set for the biggest final on the continent, the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) this Sunday. Indeed, this edition has given everything; excitement, beautiful football, tension, goals, saves, VAR drama.
There have been unforgettable stories, upsets, and colourful representation from the fans of the participating countries, too. Of course, all these make Africa the continent that it is.
Yet, it all comes to an end this weekend. The hosts, Cameroon won’t be there- they were eliminated by the most successful team in the tournament, Egypt on penalties. Expectedly, there were tears, disappointment, frustrations from everyone affiliated with the Nation.
If there was drama in that semi-final, Senegal didn’t break too much sweat in easing off Burkina Faso. It is back-to-back finals for this generation of top-class Senegalese players. Will they win it this time?
Even more interesting is the fact that Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, the two biggest forwards from Africa and indeed, the world will headline this final. This feels just right.
We have got a cracking final before us.
Senegal’s Journey To The Final
Maybe many expected that the Teranga Lions will reach the final of the Afcon once again, owing to its inherent quality, yet the journey was anything but smooth.
They had a particularly bizarre group stage experience. Aliou Cisse’s men needed a penalty to defeat Zimbabwe in the opening match. From there, they managed two drab, scoreless draws against Guinea and Malawi in the other matches. They still topped the group. With one goal.
The 2019 finalists needed to step up in the knockout rounds. After all, there are no second chances. The round of 16 was not an easy ride, yet they did not have to move into second gear. Cape Verde lost a man to a red card in the first half. But Mane only broke the deadlock in the 63rd minute before Bamba Dieng secured things in stoppage time.
The quarter-final was more like Senegal. Immediately Famara Diedhiou opened the scoring in the first half, the eventual outcome seemed predictable. They eased past Equatorial Guinea 3-1.
When the semi-final came, they had now become cohesive and fluid. The first half was scrappy but the second was dominant. Ahmad Diallo scored from close range and Mane sealed the affair with three minutes left. 3-1 they defeated Burkina-Faso.
Egypt’s Journey To The Final
Nothing flamboyant about how they got here. But they are here, just by doing the necessary- overcoming each opponent, one game at a time. Take nothing away from the experience of Carlos Quieroz, who ended up managing the expectations adequately.
After their opening one-nil loss to Nigeria, many had written them off. The second match was not convincing, either. Salah’s penalty became the ultimate decider. Yet, Guinea-Bissau must have felt hard-done after Mama Balde’s wonder equaliser was chalked off by the VAR. They laboured to another 1-0 win against Sudan to finish with six points behind Nigeria.
The Pharaohs held Ivory Coast to a goalless draw in regular and extra time. Salah stepped up and scored the decisive penalty to win 5-4.
Their toughest test came against Morocco, who had been one of the best teams in the tournament until then. After a 1-1 scoreline in normal time, Salah provided a fine assist for Trezeguet to score the winner on 100 minutes.
Then the former champions had to face the hosts. It took penalties once again to decide the winner following a goalless draw after extra time. But this time, goalkeeper Gabaski was the hero, keeping out three penalties.
What To Expect
This is a rehearsal for the third round of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in March.
Egypt is the most successful side at the Afcon with seven titles. Senegal, on the other hand, has never won it. Albeit they have made the finals twice.
Cisse’s men have had it relatively easier, at least on paper, en route this final. Hence, they will need to hit the ground running. They will be the fresher of both teams having finished off their opponents in regular time. Egypt’s knockout matches all stretched into extra time.
While they have not relied on the individual quality of Mane essentially, they will need the Liverpool forward to step up and influence things. The midfield duo of Idrissa Gueye and Nampalys Mendy will be key on the night.
Against a stingy Egyptian defence that has conceded only one goal in open play all tournament, Senegal will need to be even more dynamic in attack.
Egypt will likely sit back, as usual, hoping to break with the fewest passes possible. Salah will up against Diallo at times.
Although they will be without their suspended manager or assistant, not much will change in how they set up.
It is simpler to see this final as the “Mane vs Salah” show. Yet, it somehow would not be just about the pair. Both teams will need to leave everything on the pitch to clinch the prestigious silverware.