AFCON: Algeria favourites vs. Senegal as old friends Belmadi and Cisse reunite on the touchline
For Djamel Belmadi and Aliou Cisse, there is the overwhelming sense that Friday's Africa Cup of Nations final between Algeria and Senegal was written in the stars. It is not so long since they were lining up opposite each other at youth competitions in Champigny-sur-Marne, a dormitory town outside of Paris. On Friday they will walk out together in the crucible of Cairo International Stadium, holding their respective countries' footballing fates in their hands.
"It is fate," said Belmadi, the Algeria coach, the day before facing Cisse's Senegal in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. "We were playing together in the outskirts of Paris and now here we are, training our national teams. I believe it is fate that we would both meet again to try and win AFCON."
The beauty is that it is hard to tell who has the better chance. Belmadi and Cisse may have experienced similar groundings -- the former was born in Champigny while the latter moved there from Senegal as a young child -- but they have produced outstanding teams with different, diverse qualities. There is no doubt that the final is a fair reflection of the tournament. Algeria have been the sleekest all-round unit, their mixture of steel and technique setting them apart since the tournament began. Senegal's imposing defence and devastating speed in attack have, in all cases but one, been too much throughout the past month.
That exception was the group stage meeting between these two sides. Algeria deservedly won that 1-0, although Senegal were missing four key players. Cisse's side should be stronger tomorrow but they will miss the influential centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, suspended after picking up a yellow card in the semi-final win over Tunisia, and the gnawing sense is that Algeria will begin with a slight advantage.
"What happened earlier in the tournament is totally different to now; we are not in the same position, nor them," Belmadi stressed. Cisse concurred, calling that defeat an "accident." The aim, of course, was to wipe this final clean of psychological baggage before it starts: to guard against either overconfidence or self-doubt.
Yet both of these countries feel the weight of something. That is what happens on occasions like this, no matter how much those involved try to downplay it. Cisse said Senegal have "no pressure that makes us freeze" but, nagging away somewhere, there is the memory of what happened in 2002. Back then, in the Malian capital city of Bamako, Cisse missed the decisive penalty in Senegal's AFCON final defeat to Cameroon. He was one of the "golden generation: that featured El Hadji Diouf, Khalilou Fadiga and Henri Camara. But he, and they, fell short and Senegal have not come anywhere near as close to breaking their continental duck since.
"Senegal has always been full of talent," he said, and nobody would dispute that given the astonishing productivity of this modestly-sized West African state, whose population is 15 million. "The current generation may not be the best we have experienced over the last decade but they have managed to lift the team to the final."
They are a team rather than a group of individuals even if neutrals' eyes will inevitably rest on Sadio Mane, whose claim to the Ballon d'Or would surely be strengthened with a decisive display in Africa's showpiece tournament. Mane has received constant encouragement from Jurgen Klopp via text message over the past few weeks, reminding his club manager after every victory that he would not make it back for preseason training quite yet. The smell of history, for affirmation and for a burial of the ghosts from 17 years ago, follows Mane and his teammates around.
"We are not going to make speeches about going to war; it is about football," Cisse said. But if Senegal really can successfully fight the expectation, that title might be theirs.
Any pressure on Algeria stems from the fact that, although they have won this competition once before, that was 29 years ago. Almost three decades of hurt stand to be overcome and it may resemble a home game. The Algerian government has subsidised 5,600 plane tickets to the final, with fans queuing up overnight after the dramatic semi-final win over Nigeria to make sure of theirs. There is already a strong contingent from the country in Egypt and a fair chance that the local fans -- whose appetite to attend the final remains to be seen -- will get behind their fellow North Africans and once bitter rivals. Either way, Algeria will be the better-supported team in Cairo.
"If they want to join us, hello. If they don't, as has been the case up until now, it's OK," said Belmadi of those Egyptian followers. It seemed a bit harsh: his team appeared to be supported well at the Nigeria fixture. But perhaps Belmadi, too, was seeking to reduce his side's dependence on any external influences. It was noticeable that he pointed to Senegal's higher FIFA ranking and presence at last year's World Cup, saying that "all the statistics point to them". He has worked wonders with a seemingly drifting Algerian generation since taking the job in Aug. 2018, defying the odds to bring them this far.
"If you don't have a good recipe you can't have a good meal," said the midfielder Adlene Guedioura, alluding to his manager's masterful preparation of the squad. That lineup includes Riyad Mahrez, whose winner against Nigeria with the game's final flourish was perhaps the most thrilling moment of this tournament. It is tempting to bill the final as a shootout between Mahrez and Mane, although Algeria's strength has been in its collective and the form of its supporting cast -- players like Guedioura, Ismael Bennacer and the excellent forwards Baghdad Bounedjah and Youcef Belaili. It has all come together so far, and only has to do so one more time for the Desert Foxes to be crowned champions.
Everything has aligned for Belmadi and Cisse who, in another remarkable coincidence, were born just a day apart in March 1976. After those sparrings as young players they met twice as professionals, when Belmadi's Marseille faced Cisse's PSG in February 2001 and then, two months later, in national team colours. They briefly overlapped in England when Belmadi played for Southampton and Cisse represented their bitter rivals, Portsmouth. The thin line that has run through both men's careers reaches a barely-credible exclamation point on Friday night.
"I'm not sure that something has ever happened before," Belmadi said of the old friends' reunion. The footballing powers they preside over are on the verge of brand-new territory, too.
Prediction: Algeria 2-1 Senegal
Algeria simply look the tournament's most complete team and, while Senegal's firepower will trouble them, the absence of Koulibaly will ultimately tip the scales in favour of the Desert Foxes.