AFCON 2021 Final Preview: Too Close to Call
Senegal will look to break their AFCON duck after narrowly missing out in 2019. But can Sadio Mané lead the Teranga Lions to break the resolve of Mohamed Salah’s Egypt?
After the first round of games at this AFCON, the two finalists were swept under the rug, and rightly so. Senegal, who came into the tournament as runners-up of the previous edition, needed Sadio Mané to convert a last gasp penalty to beat 121st FIFA ranked Zimbabwe. Egypt, on the other hand, were tactically outclassed by Nigeria with Mohamed Salah barely influencing the game.
But tournaments have never been about just the first game, have they?
Fast forward six matches and both sides have grown better with each challenge. Before the quarter-final, our tournament predictor gave Senegal the nod with a 24.4% chance of winning the ultimate, closely followed by Egypt’s 24.1%. In essence, the whole world will, statistically, be treated to the best possible final at the Stade d’Olembé in Yaoundé.
A Final Neither Can Afford to Lose
If our tournament predictor is anything to go by, the pick of who deserves the trophy between the two sides is 0.3%, which could be described as negligible. The final has the look of a game most neutrals would wish both sides could win.
That’s possible elsewhere, but just not in football. In the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim decided to share the gold medal in the men’s high jump final after being given the option to partake in a jump-off.
This won’t be the scenario on Sunday as there has to be one winner. So, what makes this final so unlosable for both sides?
For starters, both countries have been aggrieved in similar circumstances recently. Senegal lost the final in the 2019 AFCON to Algeria. Losing alone is painful enough, but falling short after outplaying the opponent makes the pain unbearable. Aliou Cisse’s men had more of the ball (62.3%) and outshot their opponents (12-1) but Algeria got their hands on the most important thing: the trophy.
For Egypt, they also felt hard done by after losing the 2017 AFCON final to Cameroon. The seven-time champions had their destiny in their hands after Mohamed Elneny put them in front, but a second half collapse saw them miss out on an eighth title. Having the opportunity to beat Cameroon in Thursday’s semi-final only takes away half the pain.
Both teams represent a generation nearing its conclusion, with key players entering their twilight. There are no assurances that either Senegal or Egypt will make a return to the final anytime soon, considering the unpredictable nature of the new 24-team format.
This will be Senegal’s third appearance in the final, with the Teranga Lions yet to ever win the title. Two golden generations of the West African country have previously come close, and failing again will only lead to accumulated agony recrudesce. They say third time is the charm and Cisse and Senegal will hope that’s definitely the case.
And, for Egypt, a country so successful in the past, fans feel success has long been overdue. The last time Egyptians celebrated a trophy was 12 years ago and have since reached two finals, including this one. Against Senegal, the Pharoahs have the opportunity of a record-extending eight titles. That should remind everyone that they aren’t fallen giants.
For Senegal, It’s the End That Matters
Abdou Diallo was the first to notice the job wasn’t yet done after Senegal’s 3-1 win over Equatorial Guinea. The PSG centre-back interrupted dressing room celebrations and reminded everyone of the task at hand.
“Beginning of the tournament, nobody saw us as the favourites because we were ‘apparently’ bad players. Today everyone will say Senegal won, we are the favourites because Morocco has left the competition. Don’t be fooled. There are no favourites here. We still haven’t done anything until the final.”
The dressing room erupted after Diallo’s little speech but it summarised Senegal’s tournament at that point. The beginning hadn’t been great, but their performances in the knockout round were making them start to believe this could be their year.
The Teranga Lions ended the group stage with five points and just one goal scored from the penalty spot. Senegal scored their first two open play goals in the round of 16 against nine-man Cape Verde. There were still question marks about Cisse’s men going forward but defensively they’ve looked solid.
The 2-0 win over Cape Verde was landmark because it meant Senegal are only the second team under the current format to reach a quarter-finals unbreached. The first of those teams, Algeria in 2019, went on to win.
Defensively, Senegal have remained quite resolute despite conceding two goals from 45 shots with an expected goals total of 3.03.
Out of the 45 shots, just 16 have been from Senegal’s penalty box. This could be attributed to how high Senegal press up the pitch, making 43 high turnovers this tournament – the second most behind hosts Cameroon.
Although the Teranga Lions have been impressive defensively throughout the tournament, the attack seems to have come to its own in the knockout stages, scoring eight goals in their last three games.
The fitness of Ismaila Sarr and the introduction of Saliou Ciss have added that extra spark to their attack.
Even though Senegal have found their goal scoring boots in the latter stages of the competition, their expected goals total (9.8) suggests that they should have been even more prolific in front of goal.
Senegal are ending the tournament strong, just like the pattern seen in their matches across the tournament. Eight of their nine goals have come in the second half of matches, while they’ve accumulated 75% of their total expected goals after half-time in their six games alongside a massive improvement in shot conversion.
In fact, Senegal have attempted more shots and accumulated more xG in the second half of each game bar the opener against Zimbabwe.
One can argue that Senegal have been on the ‘easier’ side of the draw facing Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, and Burkina Faso in the knockout round but you can only go past what is in front of you.
This tournament has had its fair share of upsets, but Senegal have avoided that and still haven’t fallen behind in any game at this tournament – something Algeria managed to do across the whole 2019 edition on the way to winning the title.
Egypt, conversely, have experienced each game state comprehensively and have found a way to survive and still reach the final.
Egypt’s Streetwise Method Paying Dividends
Did you see Mohamed Abou Gabal’s bottle of water before the semi-final’s penalty shoot? It had details of the penalty records of the Cameroonian opposition. It was planned. It was deliberate. And most importantly, they were ready.
In fact, anecdotal accounts suggest Egypt actually wanted penalties. Their pedigree in shootouts suggests this may be truer than not – the Pharaohs have now won their last six shoot-outs. In this tournament, they are spotless from 12 yards, putting away all eight of their penalty kicks so far. It’s a strength that is equally spread amongst the team – only two of the five takers from the Ivory Coast shoot-out participated in the Cameroon one.
Carlos Queiroz, knowing how strong his side are from the spot, only knows he has to avoid conceding in the knockout round and his team will find a way to win. That has been the situation so far, with Egypt holding out goalless draws against Ivory Coast and Cameroon, accumulating an xG of 1.3 and 0.3 respectively.
After being dominated by Nigeria in the first game, Queiroz adopted a more compact style. Since then, Egypt have only conceded one goal in the knockout round – a penalty by Sofiane Boufal.
Conceding the same number of goals as Senegal may look impressive on paper, but it isn’t. The North Africans have conceded an xG of 6.51 which is more than double Senegal’s tally of 3.03 xG – although 1.82 of that expected goal tally came in the opening match versus Nigeria.
Egypt have also shown they have what it takes to chase a game coming from behind against fellow North African rivals Morocco. That was the only game Egypt scored more than one goal in a game and haven’t created much going forward.
Queiroz’s men have scored four goals from 76 shots (6.4xG) but a closer look reveals all of Egypt’s goals have come from within the six yard box.
Egypt have understood their strengths and weakness and maximised the latter as the tournament progressed. Their approach to games has changed, with Queiroz urging his team to be more direct when they need to score (see the Morocco game) and surrendering control and sitting back against stronger teams (see the last game).
The graphic below shows the variation has led to Egypt having less control in games as opposed to their opponents Senegal.
Queiroz won’t be on the touchline after his red card in the semi-final, making Egypt even more unpredictable in the final. Whatever the approach, Salah will have a huge role to play if the north Africans should succeed.
Mane vs. Salah – the Beginning of a Trilogy
To do that, he’d have to go past Liverpool teammate Sadio Mané. As expected, both players have denied any form of rivalry at club level in previous interviews.
Mané: “For me, the most important thing is to win something. Salah can score goals, or Bobby Firmino or me, it doesn’t matter. I think as a team we do everything as a team, we all contribute. The goalkeeper, defenders, midfield, everyone.”
Salah: “In my mind, the way I think about it is that everything starts in the dressing room. The relationships you have with everyone can make a huge difference on the pitch. We all have great relationships and I think that helps us in games and in training. It creates a good mood.”
What they can’t sugar-coat is that on Sunday they’ll be rivals. This will be the first episode of a trilogy: Sunday will be to find an AFCON winner, then in March, parts two and three will see both paired over a two-legged 2022 World Cup playoff.
With both players currently without an international trophy and having the privilege of participating in the 2018 World Cup, it looks clear which of the games they will take to heart.
The two club mates have been crucial to the run to the final by their respective countries and winning the trophy will most likely be accompanied by a player of the tournament award.
For Liverpool this season, Salah is well ahead of Mané and in contention for player of the season. The Egyptian has scored twice (20) the number of goals by Mané this season. Salah has been more involved in Liverpool’s final third play and has been a threat constantly.
The story is different when it comes to this AFCON.
Mané slightly edges ahead, despite playing fewer minutes. He’s scored two non-penalty goals from more difficult chances (1.63xG) than Salah (2.10). Also, the Senegalese has two assists compared to Salah’s one.
But for both players, these numbers won’t really matter with the trophy in sight. What will be awkward as, regardless of what happens, the pair have to unite in four days as Liverpool welcome Leicester City at Anfield.
There will be another chance to avenge defeat in March for whoever loses but for now all that Mané and Salah can dream of is lifting the golden, 13.54-pound trophy which stands at 14.5 inches.
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