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This year’s Africa Cup of Nations has been a wonderful footballing spectacle adorned with thunderous long-range efforts, whipped free-kicks and jubilant scenes of fluorescent crowds. Equally, it has been sprinkled with VAR controversy, refereeing mishaps and tragedy. The rollercoaster that has been AFCON 2022 reached the business end of proceedings last week. Wednesday’s first semi-final saw the highest ranked team left in the competition Senegal face up against Burkina Faso, who’s steady build up throughout the tournament saw them one game away from the final. 

Senegal started the game in the boisterous form we’ve come to expect. The left flank duo of Mané and Robertson that frequently looks so dangerous for Liverpool would be given a run for its money by the partnership Saliou Ciss has struck up with the world-famous number 10. Sadio Mané talismanic performance saw him deliver a goal and an assist in a 3-1 win to seal the Senegalese date with destiny Sunday. A plucky Burkina Faso team drew a goal back to make the last few minutes nervy at 2-1 but Aliou Cissé’s men were not to be denied as Mané rounded off the night with a nonchalant chip.

Over to hosts Cameroon. As though the pressure on the Lions wasn’t enough, star man and top-scorer Vincent Aboubakar decided to spice up proceedings in a pre-match interview. Laying bare his indifference to Mo Salah’s ability he said “He’s a good player, he scores a lot but he doesn’t produce a lot of stuff in the game. A move as brave as it was unnecessary. If scoring goals in normal time is of such irrelevance that it doesn’t constitute respect, myself and the rest of the nation would have loved Aboubakar to show us how it’s done in normal time. Instead the match went to extra-time and penalties (and whilst he coolly slotted his) a catastrophic showing from the toothless Lions saw Egypt book their place in the final. 

In the third-place fixture Cameroon would draw back a two-goal deficit in normal time to bring the game to 3-3 through Aboubakar’s supper-sub brace late on. After 120 minutes they secured bronze by winning the penalty shootout. A well-deserved golden boot for Aboubakar who tallied a momentous 8. The mind boggles why they couldn’t have demonstrated their ability to score in normal time or take decent penalties a few days before but I’m over it (sort of).

Cue the final. There’s a temptation to peg this one as Salah vs. Mané. We’ve seen in the past how much animosity can erupt between the two at a simple decision not to square the ball. That’s the competitiveness and commitment to winning these two expect of themselves. It’s more than that though. The teams they spearhead are abundant with players who’ve had stellar tournaments. The statesman like Koulibaly, whose excellence is often understated for not playing in the Premier League, has been imperious throughout the competition. Pharaohs phenom Gabaski has saved penalties against Cameroon in the semis (I’m not crying, you’re crying) and repeated the feat to deny Mané’s 7th minute penalty. The match was played on a knife edge as Senegal huffed and puffed against a stubborn Egypt defence happy to play for penalties. They got their wish. 

After 120 minutes with the shootout finely poised, who else but Sadio Mané would step up for the chance to secure Senegal’s first ever AFCON victory. If a script writer penned the story of this match you’d think it a little lazy in its obviousness. Would Senegal’s favourite son redeem his earlier penalty miss to bring home the gold? Never in doubt.

Written by Martyn Ewoma. @_martynewoma

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