Old friends Aliou Cisse and Djamel Belmadi go up against each other for a shot at history as the two coaches take centre stage ahead of Friday’s Africa Cup of Nations final.
There is little doubt Cisse’s Senegal and Belmadi’s Algeria have been the two standout sides at the 2019 AFCON, suffering just one defeat combined.
That single loss came in the group phase when Algeria defeated the Teranga Lions 1-0, with Senegal now having the opportunity for revenge.
But do not expect vengeance borne out of animosity to be on the mind of Cisse, as he and Belmadi know each other well having been former Ligue 1 adversaries.
The two coaches grew up in the same Paris suburb, Champigny-sur-Marne, while Senegal-born Cisse is just a day older than his counterpart.
Having had numerous tussles in their youth, in domestic French football and also at the AFCON as players, the two now do battle again with historic achievements on the line; Senegal hope to win the tournament for the first time, while Algeria have never lifted the trophy without being hosts.
“I haven’t spoken to Aliou,” Belmadi told reporters on Thursday. “It’s not the time to talk right now, but we will talk after the game. Before the game also, there will be no problem.
“It’s extraordinarily ironic that the two kids who grew up together in Champigny-Sur-Marne are now facing each other in the final. We should check if anything like that ever happened in the past.
“We used to play together as young boys in Paris. We grew up in the same city.
“It’s amazing that we are now the head coaches for our national teams. Fate brought us to this final. It has a special taste.”
Cisse remained entirely fixed on the task at hand, however, and is convinced the early defeat to Algeria has served a purpose by allowing Senegal to learn more about themselves.
“The second group match was a misstep on our part and this defeat allowed us to regroup, to be even stronger,” Cisse said.
“Friday is a final, it’s a special match, but it’s not a question of holding a speech like going to war. We stay in football. We are very calm and focused.”
Senegal will be without the suspended Kalidou Koulibaly, though Cisse insists he has a plan to cope without the Napoli star.
“Kalidou is one of the best in his position in the world, but we have the solution to replace him. We are ready,” Cisse added.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Senegal – Cheikhou Kouyate
With key man Koulibaly absent, extra responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Kouyate. The experienced midfielder, who has featured as a centre-back at the AFCON, will likely be the senior figure in a defence that needs to stay alert – Algeria’s forward options have been lively and potent throughout the tournament.
Algeria – Riyad Mahrez
While he has not necessarily lit the tournament up consistently, Mahrez’s glorious late free-kick secured Algeria’s spot in the final. It was his third goal of the competition, proving that even when he is not at his very best, he can still be an inspirational figure.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– Algeria are unbeaten against Senegal in four AFCON encounters (winning three, drawing one). Moreover, the Teranga Lions are the team the Fennec Foxes have faced most without losing to in the AFCON.
– Senegal will play their second AFCON final, after 2002 (defeat to Cameroon). The Senegalese have won their last four games, their longest winning streak in the competition.
– Algeria will play their third AFCON final after 1980 (a 3-0 defeat to Nigeria) and 1990 (a 1-0 win, also against the Super Eagles). They have conceded two goals in the 2019 AFCON, only in 1984 have they conceded fewer in a single edition, whey they finished third, letting in one goal.
– Senegal forward Sadio Mane is the player who has attempted (34) and completed (20) the most dribbles.
– Nine Algeria players have been involved in at least one goal (excluding own goals) during the 2019 AFCON: Youcef Atal, Youcef Belaili, Ismael Bennacer, Ramy Bensebaini, Baghdad Bounedjah, Sofiane Feghouli, Riyad Mahrez, Adam Ounas and Islam Slimani.
That is more than any other team.