This script couldn’t have been written any better. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp trivialized the Africa Cup of Nations a few days before the January 9th kickoff, calling it ‘a little tournament in Africa.’ One has to wonder, however, if two of his best forwards facing each other in the final has changed anything, however little, of the German gaffer’s thinking. Not that we care anyway.
Sadio Mane had predicted, or rather promised that Senegal would be at the finals this year in Cameroon. It was just up to his Liverpool team mates, Mohamed Salah of Egypt or Naby Keita of Guinea to also make it since in his own words, “Unfortunately, I cannot play two teams in the final, it has to be one.” And Salah understood the assignment. He may have had a silent semifinal against the hosts, but we all remember his run in the last stage to set up Trezeguet for the winner, reminding all and sundry why he is one of the most in-form players in the world at the moment. Perhaps only eclipsed by Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema.
The stars definitely aligned and Africa will be treated to a Salah vs Mane show on Sunday. That doesn’t happen quite often, given that they are always on the same side, plotting how to torment defenses in the Premier League. This time however, they will be on different sides of the pitch, with expectant nations expecting them to deliver.
And to make the script even better, this will be the first of three meetings in the next two months for the two giants, as both continental glory and a World Cup berth would be at stake.
Third-time lucky for Aliou Cisse?
Senegal are staring at a very dark piece of history should they lose on Sunday. They could become the first nation to lose three Africa Cup of Nations finals. Having made it to the 2002 edition as a player, and the 2019 and this year’s as a coach, Aliou Cisse will be desperate to lead his side to their first ever piece of silverware. Statistics are heavily stacked in his favor. Since taking over from French tactician, Alain Giresse in 2015, Cisse has led Senegal in 17 AFCON games, losing only three in the process, once against Cameroon and twice against Algeria. The 45-year-old dreadlocked coach will be buoyed by the timely return to action of Watford forward Ismailla Sarr, who has since scored since his return from a knee injury. His hopes, however, as well as the entire country’s, will be on Sadio Mane.
Mane for MVP?
With three goals and two assists so far to his name, Mane might as well be a shoo-in for the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award. But often, when circumstances are as grand as this one, stars normally don’t give a hoot about individual gongs. Mane will be mulling how he will go past the impressive Mohamed Abdelmonem and the new Egypt hero, their backup goalkeeper, Gabaski. His understanding on the pitch with Famara Diedhiou started to bear fruits in the knockout stages and it is something that will definitely give the Pharaohs a hard time. Add the incessant forays of fullback Saliou Cisse, the never-ending work rate of Idrissa Gana Gueye and Namplays Mendy, the towering and calm presence of captain Kalidou Koulibaly and FIFA’s best goalkeeper in Edouard Mendy, Egypt really have their work cut out for them. It is not hard to see why the Teranga Lions aren’t the best team on paper, going into Sunday’s showdown.
But the perceived underdogs have prevailed, or taken the game to the wire on so many occasions at this tournament. In the final, you are right to think that Egypt would be no pushovers. No pushover reaches the final. They are there on merit. Actually, in other quarters, it is disrespectful to call the seven-time winners (the most) underdogs. The Egyptians have had a knack in maintaining relevance on the continental front despite how poor they are playing, or how famished their squad looks compared to other giants (grimaces Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Algeria).
However, it has been a decade of lack of trophies, ever since the great Hassan Shehata led them to three consecutive titles between 2006 and 2010.
The conservative Carlos Quieroz
Current coach Carlos Quieroz isn’t a fan-favorite back at home. Maybe that has since changed now that he is in the final. But the fact that he left out some fan-favorites like Zamalek’s Tarek Hamed and Al Ahly’s Mohamed Magdy Afsha, left a sour taste on many Egyptians. The Portuguese coach stuck to his guns and is now 90 minutes away from delivering a record 8th title. However, he will have to do it from the stands. The former Manchester United assistant coach saw a second yellow card against Cameroon after a prolonged war of words between him and centre referee, Bakary Gassama.
It doesn’t help either that his immediate assistant, Wael Gomaa, also got a second yellow in as many games and will be out too. The Pharaohs will be looking for inspiration elsewhere and it goes without saying that Mohammed Salah will be and can be a source of one on the pitch. However, on the touchline, in the absence of their two coaches, one Essam El-Hadary is a cult figure in Egyptian football. The ‘High Dam’ as he is sometimes called, won four Africa Cup of nations titles as a player. Now as the goalkeeper trainer, he may be expected to pass out a few words of encouragement on Sunday. Probably with an earpiece as he receives instructions from Quieroz who will be stacked up somewhere on the stands at the Olembe stadium.
The recent performances of Aston Villa forward Mohammed Trezeguet and Pyramid’s Ramadhan Sobhi will definitely give Quieroz a thought to tinker with his starting eleven. His preferred combination of Mostafa Mohamed and Omar Marmoush to partner up with Salah, hasn’t quite been as successful as many Egyptians would have wanted. The idea of facing Koulibaly and Abdou Diallo, with Mendy behind them, will call for maximizing chances as soon as they come. Quieroz is a conservative coach but he might just be tempted to throw in a more direct Trezeguet from the start.
Sunday presents an opportunity for Mane and Salah to lay their hands, for the first time ever, on the most coveted trophy in the continent. Having lost finals before, Salah in 2017 and Mane in 2019, both will be looking to go a step further and win the crown. You get the feeling that both these players will leave everything on the pitch. And that’s a treat for us as fans. Cisse chasing his first trophy in three attempts, Merseyside duo looking to be heroes, Quieroz looking to silence his haters and Mendy looking to clinch his third trophy in less than a year. So much for a little tournament, huh Klopp?
Sunday will be pure fireworks. Get your popcorn ready!