Egypt went into the 2021 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon without their form and dominance of old. They hadn’t shown enough to be tagged favourites, particularly after placing fourth at the Arab Cup in Qatar, few weeks before the competition.
To cement the doubts football followers, pundits and fans had about the Carlos Queiroz-led side, they posted a poor and soulless display against Nigeria in their group opener. Ran ragged by the Super Eagles, the Egyptians were even dubbed lucky to have been beaten by just a lone goal.
Their second game against Guinea Bissau held a stroke of luck as a late equaliser by the Bissau Guineans was chalked off by the VAR. That instance would have left the Egyptians with a higher mountain to climb. They won against Sudan to seal their place in the next round and faced a powerful Ivorian team.
Egypt won the game 5-4 on penalties after a goalless 120 minutes. If that was dubbed mere luck, they gained some respect with their 2-1 defeat of Morocco in the quarterfinals. The Atlas Lions were most pundits’ favourite going into the tournament, probably alongside Algeria but none of them managed to even make the last four. Nigeria, which started brilliantly were eliminated in the second round by Tunisia.
The Pharaohs had to dig deeper against hosts Cameroon on Thursday, as they ran out victors via penalties. It’s their second final in three editions of the AFCON and may be the time they hope to clinch their 8th title. But there’s a blockade in their march to continental triumph. Enter Senegal.
The Lions of Teranga are chasing history. A golden generation of elite Europe-based footballers is yet to win anything, like their forebears who carried same expectations. At this AFCON, Senegal huffed and puffed their way through to the next round despite winning their group. With just a goal scored in three games, Senegal qualified for the next round as unimpressive group winners.
In the second round they scored more than one goal for the first time in the competition as they defeated Cape Verde 2-0. Against Equatorial Guinea in the Quarterfinal, the Senegalese continued with their scoring form as they put three past the National Thunder. Another 3-1 defeat of Burkina Faso in the Semifinal may have made enough statement for Senegal as they put their drought in the group stage behind them to score 8 goals in three knockout games.
Starkly different from what Egypt have shown so far, the Senegalese have a rich combination of flair and steel and may have caught their mojo in Cameroon. Egypt in their right, have had one of the most solid showing at the AFCON, as they base their game on a sound defensive organisation and an attack built to smell blood and pounce, spearheaded by star player, Mo Salah.
Greatness Made In Liverpool, Regardless
Sunday’s finale is significant for a host of reasons, including the chance for Salah to be heralded as unarguably the greatest Egyptian player of all time. While his stature as the ‘best’ of all time is undisputed, the absence of an AFCON triumph makes his greatness a question of perception. Should Salah lead Egypt to the title, he’d have done what every Egyptian great has done on the national level and in addition to his brilliance at the club level and his heroics as a nation builder, his tag as “greatest” automatically becomes unquestionable.
Like Salah, his Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane is also on the verge of greatness. With an AFCON trophy, Mane could as well become arguably the greatest Senegalese player of all time. By winning the AFCON, the Lions of Teranga would have done what no crop of players ever managed to do. The 2019 final loss still rings a bell, and a repeat of such devastation will be difficult to ever forget. A talented generation of young footballers surely deserves a triumphant pose of greatness but football is a sport that crushes feelings.
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse missed a penalty in 2002 when they faced Cameroon at the AFCON final. With two final defeats, both as a player and as a coach, a triumph at the site of their woes will be a perfect poetic justice for Cisse. In 2019, they lost against Algeria in the competition hosted by Egypt and they face the Pharaohs now. It’s many poetry in there. A loss may be too much to bear for the former Senegal captain.
Both nations are on the verge of history and what becomes of the day will determine a lot in the books of the future. They’ll seek the good eye of history.
Storm Before The Storm
In January, a World Cup playoff draw pitched Senegal, Africa’s best-ranked team against Egypt, the 5th best on the continent. The game was just like any other when the draws came out but with an AFCON final ahead of them, it becomes even more interesting.
Egypt qualified for the 2018 World Cup for the first time in more than 3 decades and will fancy a chance this time also against a Senegalese team that missed out on the knockout phase by whiskers in Russia. The Teranga Lions will fancy a place in Qatar later in the year as they hope to surpass the 2002 generation.
The small matter of the AFCON finale will prove to be the perfect dress rehearsal for the storm ahead for both nations.
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