Words by Tom Danicek
One last game ahead of us. So far, my pre-quarterfinal Power Rankings have aged perfectly; my top4 made it to the semi-finals, then Nigeria indeed clinched the bronze medals I had envisioned for them, and now Algeria should be topping Senegal in a hard-fought final. Unless, of course, I now decide to revisit the whole thing and take this one last chance to produce an ill-advised prediction after all…
Anyone who’s followed my AFCON 2019 coverage must already be aware I’ve become a little bit obsessed with Rankings of all kinds. Now I’m venturing into the business of Comparisons, too. I know, right? Changing the landscape of football blogosphere, one unexplored “genre” at a time.
Algeria — Raïs M’Bolhi had long been one of the least tested goalkeepers at the tournament. Together with André Onana of Cameroon, most notably, they were both fortunate enough to have quality teammates in front of them who’d take care of most potential danger. Then the quarterfinal arrived, and M’Bolhi was suddenly the busiest of all goalkeepers. And he did very well to deny six Ivorien shots, one of them carrying a value of 3/4 of a goal based on the xG metric. Against Nigeria, he faced four more shots on target and made three more saves. Altogether, the 33-year-old veteran had to deal with 11 projectiles in his last two starts; that’s as many as he had faced in the previous seven competitive starts for Algeria combined.
Senegal — Alfred Gomis’ AFCON only really started in the third group game but he’s never looked back. Since simple rotation allowed him to get a sniff, he’s been a staple in the Senegalese goal and he’s yet to concede, despite trying his absolute best (and bending all the rules of physics, if you don’t mind my uneducated opinion) to change that. In the end, that peculiar miskick figures; Alfred Gomis has just been as cool as a cucumber, not minding anything, and the permanent poise can indeed sometimes backfire. Aside from the rare mishap, though, Gomis has looked assured and produced one of the better goalkeeping performances of the tournament in the semi-final. He was always sharp off the line and fearless when dropping on the ground to claim the ball, all four of his saves were reflexive, and one of them even came on a penalty (horrible, admittedly).
Verdict: Despite the impressive workload he’s carried lately, I still don’t rate M’Bolhi too highly, and his distribution can be a real nuissance as opposed to that of Gomis who prefers a simple short pass over a long hopeful one. Slight edge Senegal.
CENTRE BACK PARTNERSHIP
Algeria — A perfect mix, as far as I’m concerned. Aïssa Mandi is the more expansive, constructive centre back who looks to make the more difficult passes while maintaining some very good passing accuracy. He’s also as daring off the ball as he is on it, since he doesn’t mind a terrific block. Djamel Benlamri, meanwhile, undergoes way more duels, aggressively pursues opponents and rather switches his “beast mode” on, typically dominating the air, too. Both Algerian centre backs simply complement each other so well.
Senegal — Had Salif Sané not injured himself early on in the tournament, this section would’ve probably read very differently. Now he’ll either play on his off side, provided Aliou Cissé decides to stick with the erratic presence of Cheikhou Kouyaté at RCB, or partner with Pape Abou Cissé who’s yet to be tested on this level. Neither option inspires a ton of confidence and the absence of the suspended Kalidou Koulibaly will be a huge blow indeed; the greatest imagineable one, spare for Sadio Mané. He’s the emotional leader, a dominant presence in aerial and ground duels, and every so often the go-to distrubutor from the back since he’s an adept user of both his feet and can sometimes produce an accurate long pass in behind the line.
Verdict: It would be a very close call if everyone was available, but that’s not the case, and in the only relevant state, it’s a no-brainer. Edge Algeria.
Algeria — Les Fennecs are, of course, missing Youcef Atal, the impressive right back who effectively makes for an extra attacker. That’s a blow, but only really as far as offence goes, since Riyad Mahrez and Sofiane Feghouli are now carrying more workload. Defensively, Mehdi Zeffane has not been nearly as bad as advertized, having contributed a significant number of crucial clearances, some of them even goal-line ones. For what it’s worth, however, I don’t think he’s been tested enough 1v1, something that’s bound to change with possibly all Mané, Youssouf Sabaly and Keita Baldé running at him. Then again, he likely won’t be as much of a tire fire in 1-on-1s as Rami Bensebaïni has been for much of the tournament. Bensebaïni assumed a more conservative approach in the semi-final and was arguably at his defensive best; but can he hold his horses for one more game?
Senegal — Youssouf Sabaly has been instrumental to Senegal, providing great width on one occasion and tucking in to aid the build-up on another. Plus, he finally found his shooting boots in the semi-final, hitting the crossbar with one stunning bullet, so that potentially bodes well for Senegal, too. On the other side of the pitch, I don’t like Lamine Gassama’s attacking game as much, but he did cross for a goal against Kenya. Defensively, he’s been a considerable upgrade on Moussa Wagué, the initial starter. He gets stuck in, never gives up in a duel, and has accordingly not been dribbled past yet.
Verdict: It would’ve been a very close call if everything had stayed the way it started, but that’s not the case, and in the only relevant state, it’s a no-brainer. Edge Senegal.
Algeria — There’s no easy way to stop Algeria, because there’s just no easy way to undermine their build-up. They can hit you from anywhere, and just about anyhow. Adlène Guédioura and Feghouli can beat you with a diagonal, Ismaël Bennacer can’t be pushed away from the ball, wins attacking set pieces and produces the most incisive through balls on the team, Youcef Belaïli has a telephatic understanding with Baghdad Bounedjah who’s already laid off so many balls in danger areas for him, and… oh, then there’s Mahrez. Right. Don’t even bother, really; this is a bunch of guys who seemingly turn more precise the closer they get to the opponent’s goal. They only rank fourth in deep completions per 90 mins (passes completed 25 yards away from the goal or further up the field, per Wyscout), even behind Senegal who are the most productive, but Algerian accuracy is something else. A remarkable 96,49% of their attempted deep completions are indeed completed, whereas it’s just 84,06% in the case of Senegal (ranked 13th in the competition).
Senegal — Senegal have different strengths and prefer to generate offense off the rush, off the back of a forced turnover, rather than through the good old-fashioned build-up. Les Lions de la Téranga are therefore no less dangerous than Algeria, or not much anyway, but what they gain in ball-carrying ability they lack in pure playmaking skills. Sadio Mané — who’s dropping pretty deep and turns rather pondering in the knock-out stages — can’t do it alone and he’s kind of got to, because the deep-lying Badou N’Diaye has largely not been at his best since the impressive group stages.
Verdict: You guessed it. Edge Algeria.
Algeria — It’s painfully obvious at this stage that Baghdad Bounedjah is saddled with a proper mental block. It remains to be obvious he’s a quality all-rounder as his first touch still tends to be a delight, and his timing of runs as well as lay offs for incoming teammates tends to be immaculate, but whenever he’s free on the goal or in an otherwise brilliant position, he’s just not Bounedjah anymore. It’s not even about goalkeepers coming up huge against him. It’s more about him not hitting the darn target — with his right foot, left foot, head even — or not choosing to round the goalkeeper when the situation screams for it. As great as his decision-making is elsewhere on the pitch, it’s been atrocious in front of the net.
Senegal — I’ll start off with an unpopular opinion: I think M’Baye Niang is a decent forward. His hold-up play at this tournament is, in fact, second to none in my view. He creates space well for his teammates and has already accelerated or developed numerous dangerous moves. Niang has already been credited for two second assists after all, so yeah, I do genuinely believe he has a role to play on this Senegalese team, and an important one, too. But as good a forward he is, he’s a terrible striker. Again, similarly to Bounedjah — I have a short list of objections against his efforts outside the penalty box, but a bloody long one when it comes to his doing inside the box. One touch too many in a good position, a very heavy first touch in an even better position, a scuffed shot or a strike right into the first opponent who’s not even trying to block anything — Niang does it all, and none of it is useful.
Verdict: How am I supposed to decide this? Bounedjah has at least scored once, but he did so from the penalty spot, and no open goals bagged by starting strikers in the run-up to the final, that has not happened since… *checks notes* … right, of course it was 2017. At least Aboubakar decided that final, so let’s hope the strikers generate some buzz here, too. But as of now… you know what? I’ll listen to Maestro Giresse’s advice and call this an excitingly tepid tie.
Algeria — When I wrote Algeria can “hit you from anywhere, and just about anyhow” when assessing their playmaking ability, I could’ve mean their goalscoring ability instead, and it would’ve still rung true. Algeria are the most clinical side at the tournament, and it’s not even particularly close. They find each other at the edge of the penalty area and inside it with some tremendous regularity and actually put most of their chances to bed, too. Unless — as we’ve already established — it’s Bounedjah delivering the final touches. After Mahrez decided the semi-final, Algeria now have A) three players on at least two goals; B) a pair of 3-goal players. The last four sides to meet either or both of these conditions also won the last four AFCONs. Coincidence? Hardly; secondary scoring is power.
Senegal — Algeria have strength on the wings when it comes to secondary scoring, and got a vital goal from a central midfielder too (Feghouli in the semi-final), which both goes for Senegal, too, albeit not to such an extent. Senegalese scoring prowess is also spread across the field; Gueye decided the quarter-final and as many as four of their wingers (if we include the versatile Krépin Diatta in this depth chart, too) have chipped in along the way. One knock on Senegal: while Algeria have Adam Ounas and Islam Slimani coming off the bench, Aliou Cissé can only replace M’Baye Niang with M’Baye Diagné who’s actually the same person. It’s funny really; just about four years ago or so, Senegal had a collection of five centre forwards who could do nothing but scoring, whereas now they have two centre forwards who work well as part of a team but can’t possibly buy a goal.
Verdict: Both finalists get contributions from varied sources, but only one side is outscoring their xG by 2,5 actual goals, and that’s Les Fennecs. Slight edge Algeria.
SET PIECE EXPERTISE
Algeria — OK, let’s try our best and at least attempt to look past the Mahrez wonderstrike from a late free-kick, shall we? I’m positive I can do it, can you? *tries to remember how the other free kicks turned out* Ah, damn it, Mahrez. Only a vague recollection of Bennacer delivering some decent balls to the far post, but beyond that, I’m failing. Fine. Now how about corner kicks? That’s better. I definitely recall Belaïli taking an inswinger from the left, and possibly Mahrez from the right? Okay, scratch that “definitely”; Feghouli must be somewhere in there, too. Butttt… I can clearly see Bensebaïni botching a golden chance from one set piece. Ah, nevermind.This exercise was a waste. Damn it, Mahrez.
Senegal — I mean… set pieces are one of the two main reasons why Henri Saivet is starting (the other one is pressing), so surely they must be better off in this area? Luckily, Wyscout unsurprisingly beats my memory and delivers a tangible proof: Algeria have generated five shots from 21 corner kicks, while Senegal have generated eleven shots from 32 attempts. That’s about 23,8% vs 34,4%; a convincing enough difference to call the shot on this ill-advised category (they both fare comparatively worse at free kicks, by the way, which makes a whole lot of sense when you think about it).
Verdict: Damn it, Mahrez. Sorry, Mahrez. Slight edge Senegal.
Algeria — Algerians are bashing everything the most stubborn proponents of toxic masculinity stand for, and I’m loving it. They (literally) cry and cry and cry, and yet they remain a heck of a force. Les Fennecs show their emotions without looking all that vulnerable. They ride on the wave of emotions if anything. Bounedjah may have broken down in tears after he missed his penalty vs Ivory Coast and then looked utterly lost whenever the cameraman decided to feast on his misery (which was very often), but hey, he still went on to set up two golden opportunities for his teammates. The penalty shoot-out in that same game was supposed to be it for the psychologically knackered Algerians, and yet, the only missed penalty out of the five taken was off the post. Unlucky. On the whole, Algerians talk with the referee and foul a lot, but they do it in a clever way for it to become more of a distraction to their opponents rather than themselves. In the context of our flawed society, they simply don’t make any sense. And I’m loving it.
Senegal — A polar opposite of Algeria. Senegal are as composed and cool as they come. From how Aliou Cissé conducts himself at press conferences to how Sadio Mané goes about his business like it’s no one else’s business… the Senegalese leadership is zen, and so at least from that perspective, they should have what it takes to deal with Koulibaly’s absence, too. Every protest of Mané comes across like a duty carried out because that’s what rules modern football, while Mané would rather have a polite chat with the referee about how it was actually a little bit silly of him to get knocked down by that sliding tackle, fiercely smiling throughout.
Verdict: I’m split on this one. I enjoy both kinds of emotional game and I can come up with pros and cons to each. But given how their previous encounter went, and how Senegal looked to be thrown a bit off their game until the final third of the regulation time, I’ll say: Slight edge Algeria.
Algeria — I’m sure everyone still remembers the Belaïli strike that allowed Algeria to prevail in their group stages encounter with Senegal. I’m also sure everyone has since forgotten how Algeria should’ve faced a penalty and seen Benlamri getting sent off on two separate occasions later in the said game. But it doesn’t matter anyway; Algeria did win on the day and that could count for a lot eventually. Since the first ever occurance of a GS game replay in the final (1968!), not a single finalist who had previously lost to their fellow finalist went on to pull off a reversed result. Algeria know this well themselves; they beat Nigeria twice on the way to their only AFCON triumph in 1990. Ivory Coast (2006) and Cameroon (2008) can testify, too, as they both fell short to Egypt twice over the course of one edition. Algeria has got the recipe; from the past, and from the (relative) present. Surely they’ll make it count in the (very near) future?
Senegal — According to the usually meticulous 11v11 database, Senegal have only won two competitive games against Algeria. Both were part of a World Cup qualifying cycle and both took place at least a decade ago (2001 and 2008 respectively). I don’t know whether Aliou Cissé starting the former match means any good karma for Senegal, but it probably doesn’t (because it earlier didn’t) and there’s simply no way around it: this is some miserable head-to-head record. In the first 23 years of their clashes, Senegal never experienced the sweet taste of victory. On North African soil, they are now 0-1-9 vs Algeria, a record including the AFCON 1990 semi-final in Algiers (1:2, and all goals scored by Algerians just for good measure). Ouch.
Verdict: Ugh. Now I want to turn back time and erase this category; this turned out way uglier than I’d expected it to be. And I’m now almost tempted to hand this over to Senegal just out of sheer pity for them, to be honest. But yeah. Edge Algeria.
Heck, turns out I’ve revised nothing. If I was to, say, distribute half a point for every “slight edge” and a whole point for every full-on edge, Algeria wins 4:2. (On points, not goals!)