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It is fair to say the first round of fixtures at this Africa Cup of Nations left a lot to be desired. Nil-nil and 1-0 scorelines abounded, and fans began to fear a dull, safety-first tournament. Thankfully, that has not transpired. Given the lack of preparation time in the build-up to the big kick-off, it is not surprising that cagey soccer predominated in the early stages. Since then we have been treated to an excellent Cup of Nations.
International soccer tournaments are defined by storylines, and this one has had plenty. They have not always been positive: a stadium disaster Yaounde led to the deaths of eight people during Cameroon’s game against Comoros. On the pitch, the latter were one of several overachievers. Both they and the Gambia, the two Cup of Nations debutants, reached the knockout stage. Ghana and Algeria, two continental powerhouses, did not make it.
Shocks are a vital part of an enjoyable competition, but too many of them can make the latter stages underwhelming; the vast majority of neutrals would consider a Germany vs Brazil World Cup final preferable to a clash between Paraguay and Poland, with all due respect to those nations. In Cameroon we have seen numerous upsets but also an all-star semi-final cast.
Senegal vs Egypt is an excellent final, as the former seeks its first ever Cup of Nations trophy and the latter eyes a record-extending eighth title. In Europe (and particularly in Liverpool) this is being billed as a Sadio Mane vs Mohamed Salah final but there is plenty of intrigue beyond that, even though the meeting of Africa’s two best footballers will be well worth watching.
Senegal is a country of less than 17 million. Its population is smaller than that of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Malawi. In that light, its failure to win the Africa Cup of Nations does not look like much of an aberration. Yet given Senegal’s admirable ability to produce top-quality soccer players, it is a surprise that the Lions of Teranga have never gone all the way.
The closest they came was in 2002, when Senegal suffered a penalty shoot-out defeat by Cameroon in the final. Later that year they advanced to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, memorably beating the holders France in the opening game. That was an excellent Senegal side, but many who follow soccer in the country believe the current crop is superior.
Mane is an outstanding player but this is not a one-man team. Napoli stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly has long been one of the best center-backs in Europe. Edouard Mendy has established himself as one of the world’s foremost goalkeepers at Chelsea. Idrissa Gueye, the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, brings quality and energy to the center of the park. Senegal’s talent saw them ease to a 3-1 victory over Burkina Faso last time out.
This is Senegal’s best chance to end their Cup of Nations drought since that final two decades ago. Aliou Cisse captained the team in that painful loss to Cameroon in 2002. The Senegal manager will be as determined as anyone to make amends this weekend.
In the last few years Egypt have had few concerns about the spectacle. The pre-tournament favorites ahead of this Cup of Nations, the Pharaohs have preferred their usual reactive approach to a front-foot style of play. That is how Carlos Queiroz operates, and it is also in line with how Egypt have gone about their business in recent editions of the Cup of Nations, including when they last reached the final in 2017.
Egypt required penalties to get past Cameroon in the semis. The shoot-out is often described as a lottery, but Egypt always had the psychological advantage: while their opponents could easily have put the game to bed inside 90 minutes, Queiroz’s side gave off an air of being content to go the distance.
Egypt will enact similar tactics on Sunday. At times in the match Salah will be foraging for scraps in the final third while his teammates sit deep and spoil. It is a strategy that leaves many viewers wanting more, but it has got Egypt this far and they are not going to change now.
Senegal can expect to dominate possession, but they could be frustrated in their attempts to make a breakthrough. A tie after 90 minutes is the way to go here.
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|Senegal vs Egypt Information|
|Teams||Senegal vs Egypt|
|Location||Stade Omnisport Paul Biya, Yaounde, Cameroon|
|Time||Sunday, 6 February 2022, 11.00 AM EST|
|How to watch||beIN SPORTS|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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