Cairo: Two of African football’s more consistent performers of recent years, Algeria and Senegal, look on course to meet in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations final and reprise an exciting clash from earlier in the tournament.
The two countries have emerged as favourites to reach the July 19 final as the tournament reaches the quarter-final stage on Wednesday, devoid of its hosts and facing the embarrassing spectre of near empty stadiums.
Senegal’s path to the final looks a modest task for one of the strongest squads in the competition, but Algeria face a tough examination of their credentials if they are to play the title decider at Cairo International Stadium.
The Algerians must first overcome the Ivory Coast on Thursday and, if successful, take on either Nigeria or South Africa in the semi-final on Sunday.
But four successive victories at the tournament in Egypt have emphasised not only Algeria’s potential, but also emboldened a side whose technical ability is often sunk by a fragile mentality.
Riyad Mahrez has led a team that plays a high energy game, have yet to concede and have proven adept finishers, making them an anomaly in a tournament again characterised by a poor conversion rate.
They deservedly beat Senegal 1-0 in their group game on June 27 in a major boost to their confidence and their 3-0 demolition of Guinea in Sunday’s last-16 match was arguably the best performance by any team at the tournament.
“Algeria have shown that they are good at all levels. They are very powerful. They are the best team at the moment,” said losing coach Paul Put.
Senegal’s half of the draw has been weakened by a string of upsets with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Morocco all exiting at the first knockout stage.
Senegal meet minnows Benin in the first of the quarter-finals on Wednesday and are overwhelming favourites to progress to a semi-final clash against either rookies Madagascar or a tepid Tunisia.
On the schedule, the showcase quarter-final was reserved for late on Wednesday at the Cairo International Stadium, where Egypt would have been in action in front of a sell-out crowd.
But it is likely now that a near empty stadium will provide a deflating backdrop to the mouthwatering clash between South Africa, conquerors of Egypt on Saturday, and Nigeria, who dumped holders Cameroon out the same day.
Nigeria have dominated past meetings between the continent’s two economic giants but South Africa delivered an unexpectedly competent performance to deservedly knock out the hosts.