Senegal do battle with Algeria in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations on Friday night at the Cairo International Stadium.
The game will mark the conclusion of the 32nd edition of the competition, which witnessed an increase in the number of participating teams from 16 to 24.
Having never recorded success in the competition, the Teranga Lions are aiming to win their first Afcon crown on Friday, while the Desert Foxes are seeking their second title, with the first coming in 1990.
While Aliou Cisse’s troops have lived up to their billing of being one of the pre-tournament favourites by reaching the final, Algeria, on the other hand, have come on in leaps and bounds as the tournament progressed, impressing critics with their eye-catching football.
Both nations were drawn in Group C where they faced Tanzania and Kenya. The group favorites picked up maximum points against the pair, while Algeria secured a 1-0 win over Senegal when the two played.
Consequently, Djamel Belmadi’s troops ended the group as winners with nine points, while Cisse’s team finished second with six.
The goal conceded against the North Africans in their initial meeting is the sole strike the Lions of Teranga have let in at the finals – Cisse’s side beat Tanzania and Kenya 2-0 and 3-0 respectively, and they’ve had to make do with 1-0 wins in the knockout stages against Uganda, Benin and Tunisia.
Senegal’s 2002 side, which were defeated on penalties by Cameroon, were dubbed their golden generation 17 years ago, but Cisse believes the current crop possesses more talent than the side he captained.
“Senegal always had great talents, but I think this generation is the best,” Cisse said at his pre-match press conference.
“17 years is a very long time since we were last in the final, most of my players were very young then. “We suffered a lot since then and this generation now wants to achieve more. The game is going to be tough but we want to make our people happy.”
Their task will be harder without centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, who will miss the game through suspension. Given the Napoli defender has played a solid role in marshalling the West African nation’s rearguard to five clean sheets in six games, Cisse acknowledged his star defender’s absence will be felt.
“Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the best defenders in the world and I’m sad he won’t be available for the final because he’s a very important player,” the coach admitted on Thursday.
“His absence is a regret, but we will find the replacement and tomorrow we play for him.”
Be that as it may, the presence of talisman Sadio Mane is a boost to their chances. The Liverpool forward has hit the back of the net three times in five games and will look to play a vital role in the showpiece’s decider.
The forward scored the winner in their Round of 16 fixture against Uganda and was directly involved in Idrissa Gueye’s goal against Benin in the quarter-finals.
While Senegal may have the pressure of claiming their first title, Algeria are under a different sort of pressure with the main aim centred around putting a stop to the tag of perennial underachievers by winning their second title.
The North African side haven’t secured an Afcon crown since 1990, when they won the title on home soil, and have a chance of ending their 29-year drought without success on the continent.
Friday’s meeting with the West Africans will also be the Fennecs’ second-ever appearance in a final and they’ll seek to keep their unblemished record in title deciders intact.
Even though they’ve scored 12 goals and have received effusive praise for their style, the North Africans have only conceded twice in the entire competition, one more than their counterparts.
Riyad Mahrez has proved his worth in the competition by scoring three times, level with Mane as well as teammate Adam Ounas.
The most important of his goals came in the semi-final when a late free-kick sealed a late 2-1 success over Nigeria to put the North Africans in the final.
Attempting to ramp up the pressure on their opponents, Belmadi asserted that Cisse’s men are favourites heading into the encounter and are under all the pressure of living up to their tag.
“We are playing against the best African ranked team, and they played in the previous World Cup, so we can lose, they are the favourites,” Belmadi told the media on Thursday.
Furthermore, the coach expects a different encounter to their earlier meeting in the competition and wants his players to show the hunger and desire to win the title for their supporters.
“The group stage game is totally different, this is a decisive match. Both teams are on another psychological level,” Belmadi said.
“We will prepare for that match as we did for the previous ones. We are focused and I rely on my players’ motivation and enthusiasm. We are preparing in the best conditions and we are playing this match just to win.
“We want to win the tournament for our people. We want to make them happy.”
Algeria have history on their side too: on the seven occasions in which group stage opponents have met in the decider, only once has the losing team picked up a victory in the rematch – when Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, defeated Ghana 1-0 in 1968 final after losing 2-1 in the first meeting.
Also, the North Africans have a superior head-to-head record, winning 10 of 19 meetings between the sides, while Senegal have won just four times. The West Africans are winless in the pair’s last four Afcon encounters, losing three of the games.
The final will be refereed by Cameroon official Alioum Alioum, who will be assisted by compatriots Evarist Menkouande and Elvis Nguegoue.