Football Features

“Their mental strength cannot be questioned” – Egypt survive Cameroon onslaught to make AFCON final after shoot-out success

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:08, 3 February 2022

In a drama-filled night of football, Egypt beat Cameroon 3-1 on penalties to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations final.

Mohamed Salah and his team-mates will now face-off against Sadio Mané, Kalidou Koulibaly and co. in Sunday’s showpiece after their spectacular shoot-out success over the stuttering hosts.

Vincent Aboubakar gave Cameroon a 1-0 lead in the shoot-out but after that the Indominitable Lions took three shocking spot-kicks while Egypt calmly went about their business converting three straight without even having to call on Mohamed Salah.

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The way the game ended up would have come as a huge surprise after the first 20 minutes of play. In the first-half, it looked for all the world that not only would Cameroon win but that it wouldn’t even be close. The hosts and tournament top-scorers with 11 goals were playing sublime football in the opening period.

The speed and intricacy of their play, combined with the hapless resistence from the Egyptians called to mind those classic Champions League ties between Barcelona and Arsenal where the score remained bafflingly close even though the performances were not.

Time and again Cameroon would break Egypt’s defence apart with beautiful football, switching positions, showing skills, and looking outrageously dominant only to then whiff on the final ball or find Gabal an impassable figure in goal.

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That it reached half-time at 0-0 was a surprise, but Carlos Quieroz took full advantage of that fact. Egypt came out from the break with renewed intensity and a defensive shape that was much more compact and intense.

As a result, Cameroon couldn’t maintain the momentum they had in the first-half and the game took on an entirely different vibe. One where Egypt’s strategy of making it a stacatto match with little flow increased the chances that the tournament’s most talented player, Mohamed Salah, would be able to win the day with one swing of his foot.

And to be fair that nearly happened when a Cameroon mistake was siezed upon by Egypt and Salah sent streaming through, but Andre Onana in the Cameroon goal was alive to the situation and dispossessed the Liverpool man with a superhuman open-field tackle.

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That incredible moment aside, the game was relatively short on incident until a staggering near-miss in 118th minute when Ramadan Sobhi undid a great bit of dribbling by striking his cross too firmly, meaning it missed all three of the Egyptians lining up for a tap-in.

So, to penalties it went. And Egypt did what Egypt do (they have now won their last six straight shoot-outs).

Egypt’s ability to drag Cameroon down to their level, holding the top-scorers in the tournament to no goals, will fill them with some kind of confidence ahead of Sunday’s final against Senegal. If they can stymy Cameroon, why not Senegal too? They’ve made it through three straight extra-time periods, including two penalty shoot-outs; say what you want of their quality, their mental strength cannot be questioned.

However, unlike the free-flowing Cameroon, Senegal are a side built to grind wins out. They’ve conceded just twice all tournament long and Egypt making the match a miserable sludge like they did tonight won’t unsettle The Lions of Teranga, not least because in Sadio Mané they have one of the brightest attacking stars at the tournament who is unlikely to crumble under the limelight as Vincent Aboubakar did tonight.

Mané vs Salah is obviously the big narrative but Mané vs Gabaski and Abdelmonem, and Salah vs. Mendy and Koulibaly, will be the real battlegrounds that decide the fate of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. You would expect Senegal, but don’t rule Egypt out!