After a 29 year wait, the Desert Foxes of Algeria lifted the 2019 African Cup of Nations for the second time in their history after beating Senegal 1-0 in the final at the Cairo National Stadium on Friday. The Algerians last won the title on home soil in 1990 with a solitary goal over the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
In the Cairo final, Algeria’s game plan was simple; get an early goal and then slow down the game and not allow Senegal get in their rhythm. The 2nd minute winning goal came in the most extraordinary manner as striker Baghdad Bounedjah’s shot that deflected off Senegalese defender Salif Sane appeared to go wide but slid into the net just inches beneath the bar , with Senegalese goalkeeper Alfred Gomis who was 4 yards off his line well beaten.
With the ball in the net, Algeria, who had just 1 shot at goal (winning goal) compared to Senegal’s 12, needed do nothing more but slow down the game and disrupt Senegal’s rhythm with occasional fouls. Senegal responded poorly by sticking to their passing game rather than take the risk of pushing more men forward. The passing game suited Algeria’s tactics well as it continued to provide the Desert Foxes with the impetus of slowing down the game. Incredibly, Algeria slowed down the game with ease for an entire 88 minutes right from the moment they found the net in the 2nd minute.
Further, despite maintaining a 62% ball possession, Senegal clearly lacked the cutting edge needed to unlock their opponent’s defence. They were further undone by individual play with players like Niang going for goal even from difficult angles instead of passing the ball to teammates in better scoring positions. As the minutes ticked by, Senegal uncharacteristically lacked agency failing to push forward in numbers.
Worse still, Senegal seriously missed the services of the suspended Khalidou Coulibaly who could have provided critical leadership to his team.
Coach Aliou Cisse’s jinx has come to haunt Senegal again. As a captain, he led Senegal to the 2002 AFCON final, which was decided after extra time on post match penalties. But his penalty miss handed Cameroon the title in a match that the Teranga Lions clearly dominated. 17 years later, as a coach, he led Senegal to the AFCON final in the just concluded edition but ended up on the losing side again.
Algeria won because they had the best organized team in the tournament, had their tactics spot on and played with grit and determination that most other teams lacked. They wanted it more than Senegal and the fighting spirit of players like Riyad Mahrez and Boundnejah is unmatched. Despite their technical and tactical capabilities, Algeria’s biggest asset is perhaps their psychological and mental strength. Their ability to maintain composure, handle pressure at critical moments as well as remain calm for entire 90 minutes is highly laudable.
Further, their ability to read their opponent’s game and adjusting well to changing patterns of play as well as avoiding costly mistakes was a key factor that made their team formidable. More importantly, their discipline and team work approach solidified their ranks and this quality was evident in all their matches.
Overall, AFCON 2019 was a memorable tournament that will go down as one of the most spectacular in recent memory.