Mane has played slightly in the shadow of Mohamed Salah at Liverpool. This African Cup of Nations tournament in Egypt was meant to be all about Salah. But with Egypt gone and Senegal in the semifinals, Mane has his chance to be the center of attention.
Senegal has been waiting 54 years for an African title. It played in 14 tournaments since 1965, more than any other team, without winning the trophy. Will it now be lucky 15?
Senegal has been a production line for players in the top European leagues and is one of only three African teams to reach the quarterfinals of a World Cup. But somehow it hasn’t harnessed that talent at the African Cup.
Senegal plays Tunisia in the semifinals on Sunday. Nigeria and Algeria contest the other last-four game.
SENEGAL vs. TUNISIA
Mane said winning an African Cup with Senegal would eclipse his Champions League triumph with Liverpool in June. This tournament is now Senegal’s best chance in years to win.
The 27-year-old forward has done his bit so far with three goals in four games after missing Senegal’s opening game through suspension.
But there’s a problem: Penalties. Mane has failed with two spot-kicks at this African Cup and was responsible for the missed penalty that saw Senegal eliminated in the quarterfinals two years ago. If Mane has to take another decisive penalty, it’ll be very tense.
“We trust Sadio Mane,” Senegal coach Aliou Cisse said. His star player will remain first-choice penalty taker, he said.
Tunisia’s been pretty far from the most convincing team after three draws in the group stage. The Tunisians squeezed past Ghana in a penalty shootout in the round of 16. Tunisia did find some flair in a 3-0 win over Madagascar to reach the last four for the first time since its lone African Cup triumph in 2004.
Tunisia playmakers Youssef Msakni and Wahbi Khazri likely need to be at the top of their game to break down a Senegal defense run by Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and which has conceded one goal in five games in Egypt.
Midfielder Ferjani Sassi, a goal-scorer against Madagascar, said Tunisia had “gained momentum.” The team’s gaining support, too, with chartered planes making their way across the top of the African continent carrying fans from Tunis to Cairo.
NIGERIA vs. ALGERIA
No one does inconsistency at the African Cup quite like Nigeria. Nigeria didn’t qualify for the African Cup in 2012, won the next edition, then went missing again and failed to make the next two. Here in Egypt, Nigeria lost to lowly-ranked Madagascar and beat defending champion Cameroon in back-to-back games.
A second African title in six years is a possibility for a team energized by the youth of Samuel Chukwueze, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa and Moses Simon.
Nigeria appears to have also sorted out one issue that often undermines its efforts at big tournaments: Money. After years of griping — and sometimes going on strike — over promised bonuses that never materialized, each Nigeria player has already received at least $72,000 for this tournament. The team’s been promised a further $75,000 for each goal they score against Algeria.
Striker Baghdad Bounedjah encapsulated how emotionally charged this Algeria campaign is when he spent much of the quarterfinal against Ivory Coast crying and hiding his face in his shirt on the bench. Bounedjah had missed a penalty and been substituted and although it ultimately didn’t cost Algeria, which went on to win in a shootout, he feared the worst.
Algeria wasn’t talked about as much as Senegal and Nigeria before the African Cup but has been arguably more impressive in Egypt: Ten goals and one conceded, and five wins out of five, makes Algeria the most potent team at the tournament.
“We have a team of warriors and we must seize our chance to win this tournament,” captain Riyad Mahrez said.
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