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AFCON 2021: Gold battle as Senegal dares Egypt

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With 51 matches played amongst 24 nations so far, the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations comes to an end in grand style as Senegal and Egypt go head to head for the ultimate grand prize game at Olembe’s Paul Biya Stadium on Sunday.

Beaten in two previous finals, the Lions of Teranga will look to clinch their first ever title against an Egypt side who will be seeking to conquer the continent for a record extending eighth time, and this game promises to be a nerve racking showdown as we get to see two of Liverpool’s leading forwards in Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah lock horns for continental glory.

On the back of a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Algeria in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final, Senegal came into this year’s edition as one of the continent’s biggest sides yet to lift the title despite multiple final appearances.

The Lions of Teranga enjoyed a smooth qualification journey where they went unbeaten in Group I, claiming four wins and two draws from six games to finish top of the table with a healthy five-point lead over runners-up Guinea-Bissau.

However, Senegal had to grind out a hard-earned 1-0 victory over a resilient Zimbabwe side in their opening game on January 10, when Mane opened his account with a 97th-minute penalty.

Despite failing to win their final two group games, where they were held to consecutive goalless draws by Guinea and Malawi, Aliou Cisse’s men finished top of Group B and secured a place in the knockout stages.

After their somewhat unconvincing group stage run, Senegal found their magic touch in the round of 16 as they put two past Cape Verde on January 25 courtesy of second-half goals from Mane and Ahmadou Bamba Dieng.

Cisse’s side continued their sensational run in the quarter-finals where they claimed a comprehensive 3-1 victory over Equatorial Guinea five days later at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium to set up a last-four clash with Burkina Faso on January 2.

With confidence and belief high in the Senegalese camp, Abdou Diallo and Dieng scored in a six minute spell as they placed one foot firmly in the final, and after Ibrahim Blati Toure pulled one back in the 82nd minute, Mane was at it again as he restored his side’s two-goal advantage five minutes later.

Senegal are currently in superb form, going unbeaten in 12 consecutive games with nine wins and three draws in that time stretching back to a COSAFA Cup defeat at the hands of South Africa back last July.

This fine run of results has been owing to a mix of attacking brilliance and defensive sturdiness as they have scored 24 goals since that defeat while conceding just six in that time.

Senegal will now look to end their losing streak in the final with their first defeat coming in 2002 when they lost on penalties to Cameroon and the most recent being a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Algeria in Egypt three years ago.

Egypt, on the other hand, are the most decorated side in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations, conquering the continent on seven different occasions, with their last title triumph coming back in 2010, when they saw off Ghana 1-0.

Like Senegal, the Pharaohs went unbeaten in the qualifiers, claiming 12 points from six games to finish at the summit of Group G and secure smooth entry into the tournament proper.

However, Carlos Queiroz’s side were sent crashing back down to earth in their opening game on January 11, when they fell to a narrow 1-0 loss at the hands of West African giants Nigeria courtesy of Kelechi Iheanacho’s 30th-minute strike.

Egypt got their campaign up and running four days later, when they secured a hard-earned 1-0 victory over a dogged Guinea-Bissau side before wrapping things up in the group stages with another 1-0 win over Sudan on January 19.

Finishing as runners-up in Group D with six points from nine available, the North Africans progressed to the last 16 where they saw off tournament favourites Ivory Coast on penalties following a goalless 120 minutes.

Egypt then turned in a performance of the highest quality in the semi-finals where they locked horns with regional rivals Morocco on January 30, as Salah scored in the 53rd minute to cancel out Sofiane Boufal’s seventh-minute penalty and force extra time, where Trezeguet came up clutch with a 100th-minute winner.

The Pharaohs then stunned tournament hosts Cameroon last time out when they claimed a 3-1 victory on penalties to secure a place in the final following a goalless 120 minutes at the Paul Biya Stadium.

While Egypt have struggled to get going in attack, they owe their journey to the finals to the solid job done at the opposite end of the pitch, where they have kept four clean sheets and conceded just twice so far at the tournament.

While the six-time African champions will be seeking to conquer the continent again, next up is an in-form opposing side who they have struggled against in recent meetings between the teams, losing each of their last two encounters and three of the last five since 2002.

Senegal Africa Cup of Nations form:

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Egypt Africa Cup of Nations form:

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Jeremiah Mugalu

AFCON 2021: Cameroon rally from behind against Burkina Faso to clinch bronze

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