Senegal who have never won the Africa Nations Cup despite two finals in the last two decades take on Egypt, the most successful nation in the history of the competition with 7 trophies -3 won in the last 20 years- in the final of the 2021 edition on Sunday.
The final taking place at the Olembe Stadium, Senegal will seek to stop Egypt from claiming a record-extending eighth trophy and go one better after their crumble to Algeria in 2019 final.
Baghdad Bounedjah’s solitary strike that denied the Lions of Teranga their first title will still haunt Coach Aliou Cisse after he lost the final as a player and captain in Mali 2002 to Cameroon. In his quest to write history for his nation, Cisse is ready to overcome the pain of the past with glory on Sunday.
“We lost the 2002 and 2019 finals so we will pay attention to emphasis on details so we can rectify the errors. We will display a better performance than we did in 2002 and 2019. We will do our best to limit the errors and not focus on the past,” he said in the press conference.
Senegal who started the tournament struggling upfront in the group stages with just a goal scored through Sadio Mane’s 97th minute penalty against Zimbabwe in the opener and two goalless draws against Guinea and Malawi. Since then, they have managed to score eight times in the knockout phase conceding just twice, 3-1 victories over Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso in the quarter-finals and semifinals followed a 2-0 win over Cape Verde in the round of 16.
As strong as their defensive unit is, Captain Kalidou Koulibally is not ready to take chances against their opponents who have in their team one of the dangerous forwards in world football Mohammed Salah.
“Salah is a good player. I played against him in Italy when he was at Roma. It is important to limit the influence of Salah for his team. We should not focus on only Salah and leave the other players of the team. We are going to pay attention to Salah and focus on all the other attacking players in the team,” the Napoli defender informed.
Egypt ensured a 1-0 loss to Nigeria pushed them to triumph over both Guinea-Bissau and Sudan 1-0 to escape elimination at group stages. Since progressing, the Pharaoh’s have endured 360 minutes of football in the knockout phase with each game travelling to extra time. A 2-1 win was earned against Morocco in the quarters but took penalty shootout to dispatch Ivory Coast and Cameroon in the round of 16 and semifinals.
The final has seen the context of Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane facing each other as the highlight. The two Liverpool forwards in the last year share between themselves over 100 goals for club and country. For the Captain of Egypt, Salah, this is the biggest game of his career and looks beyond just playing against his club colleague.
“Our team and players are ready to fight for the title. It’s a matter of life and death and we want to win the trophy.”
For assistant coach Wael Gomaa, this is a moment cherished by the entire team and they want to extend their record number of titles as they hope this will push Salah towards becoming the best on the continent
“This is a very important moment for all the players. We are going to give in our best shot and to make the most of this match. Players who will play are going to spare no efforts in winning the match. Winning this trophy will improve our CV and we are playing with one of the best in the world. He(Salah) has proven he is a very important player right from the beginning of the tournament. I believe he will win the trophy and win the best footballer,” Gomaa told the press.
Egypt will have to do this without their coach Carlos Quieroz after he was shown his marching orders in extra time against Cameroon. His inspiration and guidance will be an advantage for his opponent Aliou Cisse but the Portuguese is not perturbed, he trusts his players to deliver the trophy in his absence.
“If I need to pay this huge price because I did it for my team, I really don’t mind. I feel happy and proud. My boys are ready to do it alone,” Quieroz confidently informed during the team’s last training session.
There are key battles to look up to aside Mane and Salah.
Edouard Mendy vs Mohamed Abou Gabal have been excellent last lines of defence for their sides. Mendy after missing the initial opening games returned on the 3rd group game and has made just four saves as his organization and control of his men at the back has seen him concede just twice. Gabaski as Gabal is called has been instrumental since he replaced Mohammed El Shenawy in the round of 16 game against Cote d’Ivoire. Saving two penalties against Cameroon in the shootout and Eric Bailly’s against the Elephants to aid his team through to the final, Gabaski has let in just one goal, Sofiane Bouffal’s penalty opener against Morocco in the quarterfinals. The 33-year-old is expected to be the crucial element for Egypt as he keeps his place between the two sticks.
The influence of Kalidou Koulibally and Mohamed Abdelmonem has been felt in the two teams. Egypt missing Ahmed Hegazi means Abdelmonem has a huge task to replicate his semifinal defensive prowess in the semifinal after the abductor muscle injury to Hegazi. Koulibally has offered enough assurance to urge his midfielders into more attacking areas to plunge holes in opponents’ rear.
There is the combative midfield battle to look up to as Mohammed El Neny and Nampalys Mendy who have seen few minutes at club level for Arsenal and Leicester bring their quality and ability to disrupt the fluidity of any team to the climax.
As Senegal have no injury worries and suspensions, Egypt are missing assistant coach Wael Gomaa through suspension, goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy (hamstring), centre-back Ahmed Hegazi (adductor muscle) and full-back Omar Kamal (one-match suspension from accumulated yellow cards) in addition to 68-year-old Carlos Quieroz as he seeks to crown his 44-year coaching career with a trophy.
The road to the final has been relatively easier for Senegal who came close to winning the title in Cairo 2019 to inject all the reserved energy but Egypt will their resilience in the knockout stages will rely on that pedigree to surmount the task before them to the podium for the eighth time in Yaounde tonight.
By Kelvin Owusu Ansah|Yaounde, Cameroon