6, February 2022
Egypt or Senegal? Or maybe a more absorbing question for world soccer fans: Mohamed Salah or Liverpool teammate Sadio Mané?
Sunday’s African Cup of Nations final in Cameroon will center on two of the continent’s biggest stars, now global stars, when Salah’s Egypt tries to reclaim its lost glory against Mané’s Senegal, which is seeking a first title and the right to finally call itself the best in Africa.
The two forwards will be on opposing sides at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde and while their teams are playing for bigger rewards, there will be significant focus on who wins the personal battle between the club mates.
One of them is set for unrestrained joy and his first major title with his country. One is set for more misery. Salah lost in the final with Egypt in 2017, and Mané was inconsolable after Senegal lost in the final in 2019.
Mané partly predicted the matchup in a video he posted on social media at the start of the African Cup. He was cheekily addressing Liverpool teammates Salah and Naby Keita of Guinea when he said he knew he was going to face one of them in the final, he just didn’t know which.
“Unfortunately I can’t play against two teams in the final so I have to play against one,” Mané said. “Which of you?”
Turned out to be Egypt after the North Africans took the hard road to the final, beating Ivory Coast on penalties in the round of 16, Morocco in extra time in the quarterfinals and host Cameroon in another shootout in the semifinals.
That game against Cameroon saw Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz given a red card for his angry protests against some of the referee’s decisions and he will be banned from the touchline for the final.
Egypt raised the possibility of the final being put back a day to Monday to help them recover because they played their semifinal on Thursday, while Senegal had an extra day to prepare after beating Burkina Faso 3-1 on Wednesday. The Confederation of African Football hasn’t agreed to that request and the final goes ahead as scheduled.
It’s turned out to be an ideal climax for the African Cup and its attempts to attract more attention than usual. They will be watching in Merseyside, said Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp.
“They (Salah and Mané) are superstars there so the pressure they had on their shoulders was massive, and how they deal with it, I’m really proud of them,” Klopp said. “We will watch it, definitely.”
Both players lived up to their big reputations at the African Cup.
Mané scored Senegal’s first goal of the tournament and was on target again in the round of 16 and the semifinals, when he inspired the win over Burkina Faso by setting up one goal and scoring another.
Likewise, Salah delivered the goal for Egypt’s first win in Cameroon, buried the decisive penalty in the shootout against Ivory Coast in the last 16 and scored again in the quarterfinals against Morocco.
One of them will also end up being part of a landmark moment for their country at the African Cup.
Egypt is the record seven-time African champion but having won three straight titles in 2006, ’08 and ’10 in the pre-Salah era, it failed to qualify at all for the next three tournaments when Salah was on the team. Egypt nearly returned to its pedestal in 2017, when it lost to Cameroon in the final.
Egypt now has arguably the best player in the world in Salah, its captain. He said the team must “keep our feet on the ground.”
“But … we are having a very good tournament,” Salah added.
For years, Senegal has had to carry the label of being the best team never to win an African Cup. Senegal made the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002, an achievement that many believed would be the start of a run of success in Africa. Two decades later, it still has no African Cup titles.
Senegal’s story could finally change on Sunday.
“I think you can see on my face how happy I am,” Mané said after making the final.
Source: AP soccer