Senegal vs Egypt: Mane and Salah lock horns for AFCON glory
The Africa Cup of Nations final on Sunday is the match that many observers had wished to see and that Jurgen Klopp had perhaps hoped to avoid.
Senegal, runners-up to Algeria two years ago, have the chance to get their hands on the trophy for the first time at Olembe Stadium. Standing in their way are Egypt, seeking a record-extending eighth African title and their first since 2010.
It will also be the much-anticipated meeting of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, the Liverpool stars looking to cement their status as the finest players from the continent.
Reds manager Klopp could be forgiven for wishing both teams had been knocked out sooner so he could have Mane and Salah back on Merseyside, but he described it as a "great achievement" to see both players competing for the trophy.
"Now it's obviously not so easy because one will definitely be really happy after and the other one much less so, but both have a good chance to achieve something really big," he said.
Salah did not need to take a penalty in the semi-final shoot-out with Cameroon, who beat them in their last final appearance in 2017, as the host nation missed three kicks in a row to send the Pharoahs through.
This will be a record-equalling ninth AFCON final for Egypt and their first meeting with Senegal in this competition since the 2006 semi-finals, which they won 2-1 en route to lifting the trophy. Overall, the head-to-head record stands at two wins each.
Yet Senegal have won 11 matches over the past three AFCON tournaments, more than any other team, and kept the most clean sheets (12) in that time. That form has continued in 2022: they have won four of their six games, scoring nine times and conceding just twice, hitting three in their quarter-final and semi-final wins while Egypt have needed extra time or penalties in three straight matches.
Mane's influence has helped them become clinical: at these finals, Senegal have scored nine goals from 81 attempts, a shot conversion rate bettered only by Cameroon (11 goals from 91 shots). Egypt, with four goals from 76 efforts, have the lowest conversion rate among any of the teams to reach the knockout phase.
Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz, however, is not feeling concerned.
"Words like fear have been erased from our dictionary," he said. "In our football dictionary, there is the word 'respect'. We have great respect for our opponents and their players, because they are performing well and scoring goals. But we are ready."
For Senegal counterpart Aliou Cisse, a losing finalist as a player and coach, his players' mental fortitude is the most important thing they have.
"We know it will be a very difficult final," he said. "I congratulate my players because we have come a long way. They had the right mentality. I can assure you that the best quality of a player in the national team is having the right mentality."
Players to watch
Senegal: Sadio Mane
With a goal and an assist in the semi-final win over Burkina Faso, Mane has been directly involved in nine (six scored, three assisted) of Senegal's past 14 goals at the AFCON. He will be looking to register a goal involvement in four consecutive matches in this competition for the first time.
The pressure is firmly on Mane to lead the top-ranked team in Africa to the trophy for the first time.
Egypt: Mohamed Salah
Salah has only scored twice at these finals, excluding the shoot-out win over Ivory Coast, but his influence extends beyond goals of his own: since his competition debut in January 2017, he has been directly involved in 68 shots at goal for Egypt (41 shots, 27 chances created). Only Tunisia's Wahbi Khazri (70 – 40 shots, 30 chances created) has been involved in more in this time.
"Salah is not only the best player in Egypt but a world-class player and his presence is a boost for the other members of the team," said Egypt assistant coach Diaa al-Sayed. "He is a guide and a leader. His presence is so crucial for us. He came here to win and we hope he will."