<
>

2021 AFCON final: How Senegal, Egypt made it to Sunday's showdown

play
Klopp: Great achievement for Salah and Mane to reach AFCON final (0:39)

Jurgen Klopp says it will be "exciting" to watch Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah face each other in the AFCON final. (0:39)

After an engrossing tournament full of individual quality, pulsating fixtures and drama on and off the pitch, the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations boils down to Sunday's compelling final (8 p.m. WAT / 7 p.m. GMT / 2 p.m ET) between Egypt and Senegal.

Obviously, this match pits the continent's top most prominent players today against one another for Africa's grandest prize -- arguably the first time this has happened, at least since 1980 -- as Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane prepare to go toe to toe at the Stade d'Olembe. The collision between these Liverpool teammates is the kind of subplot that will get the world talking, but there are plenty of other intriguing hooks between these two heavyweights.

For the first time since 2015, both sides are heading into the match on the back of losing their last final in the tournament; Egypt in 2017 and Senegal in 2019. Many of the players in both squads were part of those recent failed attempts, and so there's a very real redemption arc for both squads: none of the players involved on Sunday have ever won the big one before.

- Africa Cup of Nations bracket and fixtures schedule
- Africa Cup of Nations: Everything you need to know
- AFCON kit rankings: Who has the best jersey?
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

Of course, in contrast to Egypt's record seven AFCON titles to date, Senegal have never before got over the finishing line at the continental high table, a pain they hope to finally remedy this time around. No team has reached the last two more often without ever winning the title than Senegal, and in winning their semifinal against Burkina Faso, the Teranga Lions become the first team since Egypt in 2010 to reach successive AFCON finals. Failure to win would be a crushing blow to a side that's enjoyed organic progress and made an admirable ascent up the FIFA rankings, from 64th to 20th, during Aliou Cisse's near-seven years at the helm of the national side.

As a veteran of the 2002 side who fell to Cameroon in the final before ensuring legendary status with a run to the World Cup quarterfinal later that year, Cisse knows the dizzying highs and demoralising lows of African football better than most, but Senegal's progress in recent years may count for naught if they make it zero wins from three finals at the tournament.

Here's the tale of the tape for these two continental heavyweights as they prepare to compete for the continent's grandest prize.


Senegal

Afcon track record: Two previous finals (2002, 2019) and two defeats to Cameroon and Algeria, respectively. The generation of 2002 remain the benchmark against which all subsequent teams are measured, but success on Sunday would establish this team as their rightful heirs.

Route to the final: Turgid during the group stage, Senegal were hamstrung by twice playing in the heat of early kick-offs, but they still should have done better than a 97th-minute winner over Zimbabwe and dull draws with Guinea and Malawi. After another sluggish first half against Cape Verde in the Round of 16, they ultimately ran out 2-0 winners despite losing Mane to a head injury.

In the latter stages, they've been more expansive, beating Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso 3-1 thanks to strong second-half performances.

Best moment: Bamba Dieng's 92nd-minute goal against Cape Verde, which was celebrated by the Marseille man paying tribute to the late Papa Bouba Diop by emulating the former midfielder's celebratory dance after his own winner against France at the 2002 World Cup.

Bouba Diop passed away in November 2020 after suffering with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Moment to forget: Mane's head injury after an aerial collision with Cape Verde goalkeeper Vozinha. The forward was initially allowed to play on despite a hard landing, and even though he opened the scoring, Senegal were criticised for not ensuring the safety of their players.

Strength: They may have conceded two goals in their last two games, but Senegal's defence is still the envy of the rest of Africa, with Edouard Mendy the continent's finest goalkeeper and a centre-back pairing of Kalidou Koulibaly and Abdou Diallo protecting him effectively. Considering the midfield protection they have ahead of them, it should take something special to breach the Teranga Lions.

Weakness: The trio of Nampalys Mendy, Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate can stymie, neutralise and frustrate any opposition midfield, but they lack a creative spark to prise open a locked defence. Senegal found a way through against a Cape Verde side down to nine men, an ambitious Equatorial Guinea side and a Burkina Faso team chasing the game, but Egypt represent a very different prospect.

Star man: Mane made the team of the tournament in 2019, and has fully deserved his billing as one of Africa's three outstanding players this time around. He's currently had a hand in five goals -- only Cameroon's Vincent Aboubakar has more -- and only Nigeria's Moses Simon has averaged more successful dribbles per game than the 29-year-old.

Any legends on show at the AFCON? El Hadji Diouf has been spotted celebrating raucously at Senegal matches and is always happy to give a soundbite or two.

What did they say? "Even though we haven't won the Nations Cup, you can't talk about African football today without talking about Senegal. We've never been as close to this cup, but we just need to bring it home." -- Senegal manager Aliou Cisse


Egypt

Afcon track record: Record seven-time winners, Egypt won the first Nations Cup (way back in 1957) and enjoyed their most glorious era when they won three back-to-back

Route to the final: Bounced back from an opening defeat by Nigeria to dispatch Guinea-Bissau and Sudan and advance. Were more expansive against an Ivory Coast side who opened up a little more, registering over 20 chances during the course of the contest before winning it in the penalty shootout. Against Morocco in the quarterfinal, they demonstrated their character again, coming back after conceding an early goal to win it in extra-time when Salah played in Trezeguet, before seeing off Cameroon on penalties in Olembe on Thursday to reach their tenth final.

Having played 120 minutes in all three of their knockout games, as well as having one day fewer to rest than Senegal, there may be some tired legs, while injuries to Mohamed El-Shenawy and Ahmed Hegazy have also weakened them defensively.

Best moment: Stand-in goalkeeper Gabaski - one of three keepers Egypt have used at this tournament - keeping out two Cameroon penalties, and then being engulfed by his teammates when Clinton N'Jie sent his spotkick harmlessly over the bar.

Not bad going for a keeper who had only played one competitive game for the national side in a decade before the tournament began.

Moment to forget: Carlos Queiroz's sending off against Cameroon in the semi-final. For a manager who had criticised FECAFOOT president Samuel Eto'o for talking of 'war' before the fixture and risking further tragic scenes, his touchline antics and hostile, confrontational approach towards referees have been one of the more unsavoury sights of the tournament. It's to Egypt's credit that their manager's bellicose behaviour hasn't transferred to his players.

Strength: Defensively, Egypt haven't conceded from open play since Kelechi Iheanacho's fine strike 30 minutes into their opener. That's 600 minutes without being breached (excluding Sofiane Boufal's penalty), which is particularly admirable considering the misfortune to have befallen their goalkeepers.

Weakness: Whereas Senegal have found their scoring touch, Egypt have only bagged four goals in six games, drawing a blank against three of the four heavyweights they've faced. There's a reliance on Salah, who's had a hand in three of their four goals, and if he's neutralised -- as he largely was by Cameroon's Nouhou Tolo -- then Egypt quickly run out of ideas.

Star man: Comfortably Salah, although while Mane is growing into the competition, Salah struggled to impose himself, and failed in a one-on-one duel with Andre Onana, in Thursday's semi.

Any legends on show at the AFCON? Four-time winner Essam El Hadary missed the start of the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19, but has since joined the camp. His former defensive partner Wael Gomaa has been an incendiary presence next to Queiroz, while ex-midfielder Mohamed Shawky oversaw extra time against Cameroon after the Portuguese coach was sent off.

What did they say? "We are not a one-man team and I reject this description because the team plays collectively and everyone wants to win. We play together, we suffer together, we create opportunities together and score together." -- Egypt manager Carlos Queiroz