Senegal once again stand on the brink of a first Africa Cup of Nations title but they must get the better of record seven-time champions Egypt in Sunday’s final in Yaounde which sees Liverpool stars Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah face off for the trophy.
It has been a difficult tournament for Cameroon, scarred by the deadly Olembe Stadium crush of January 24 and troubled by organisational chaos and poor attendances, yet it has thrown up a heavyweight final showdown between two African giants.
Cameroon hoped to be there themselves, but the five-time AFCON winners who dreamed of lifting the trophy on home soil were beaten on penalties by the Egyptians in Thursday’s semi-final.
As a country, Egypt have the experience of seven past Cup of Nations victories, although the most recent was in 2010 when they claimed their third in a row.
Salah made his international debut the following year and is now desperate to win silverware with the Pharaohs having already been in the team that lost the 2017 final to Cameroon and then went out prematurely as hosts in 2019.
Senegal, meanwhile, have the status of Africa’s top-ranked national team but also the pressure of a nation to finally claim their first Cup of Nations crown after losing to Algeria in the deciding game two and a half years ago.
“We knew it was not going to be at all easy to get to two straight AFCON finals, but the most important for us now is to go all the way and win it,” Mane said after scoring one goal and making another in the 3-1 semi-final defeat of Burkina Faso.
The Lions of Teranga are hoping it will be third time lucky in the final after they also lost the title decider in 2002, going down on penalties to Cameroon.
Aliou Cisse was the captain of that team and then the coach in 2019. Nobody knows better than him what it would mean to Senegal to get the monkey off their back.
Egyptian fatigue a factor?
His side must take advantage of the extra day’s rest afforded them given their semi-final was played 24 hours earlier than that of their opponents, and Senegal have also come through all three knockout ties in 90 minutes.
In stark contrast, Carlos Queiroz’s Egypt required penalties to beat the Ivory Coast in the last 16 and extra time to overcome Morocco in the quarter-finals before another shoot-out against Cameroon — the equivalent of a whole extra match in often energy-sapping conditions.
That explains why Egypt assistant coach Diaa al-Sayed suggested moving the final back a day to allow his team more time to recover.
“Senegal have one extra day to train and therefore maybe we should play the final on Monday,” he said after the semi-final.
This Cup of Nations has already seen the Confederation of African Football announce last-minute venue changes without offering an official explanation, while the third-place play-off was belatedly brought forward a day to Saturday.
Egypt, though, will not get their wish and must try to avoid the fate of Croatia, who similarly needed two penalty shoot-out wins and another in extra time to reach the 2018 World Cup final, where they were well beaten by France.
“We are the only team that has played three times 120 minutes but we are very well prepared physically and we have the commitment needed to keep going to the end,” insisted Al-Sayed.
Egypt will be without veteran Portuguese coach Queiroz after he was shown a red card against Cameroon, while right-back Omar Kamal is suspended too.
They must also hope Salah can have more of an impact on the game than he did in the semi-final when he often appeared isolated on the right flank.
Without doubt Senegal have the greater depth, from Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy in goal to skipper Kalidou Koulibaly in central defence, Paris Saint-Germain’s Idrissa Gana Gueye in midfield and Mane on the wing.
Mane, like Salah, gets the attention but Senegal will hope their collective strength can make the difference.