Algeria ended a 29-year title drought by running out 1-0 winners over Senegal in a closely matched Afcon final.
The championship was ultimately decided in the opening salvo when Baghdad Bounedjah created a piece of history.
His effort was enough for the north African side who matched their heroics from 1990 but compounded Aliou Cissé to a second final defeat having suffered the same fate as a player back in 2002.
As the dust settles here are five things we learned from this showdown in Cairo.
1. For 90 minutes we’ll not be friends
The pressure on a manager going into a final can be palpable especially when an entire football-mad nation is analysing your every move and decision. It’s often been rare to see coaches leading their country, which they’ve served diligently as players, in the Africa Cup of Nations, but this showdown marked two such examples. Aliou Cissé captained Senegal in their only previous final appearance, losing to Cameroon on penalties in 2002, whilst Djamel Belmadi collected 20 caps for Algeria in the early 2000s.
#CAN2019 : Le saviez-vous ? Les deux #sélectionneurs des équipes finalistes de ce soir ont beaucoup de points en commun. Aliou #Cissé (#Sénégal) et Djamel #Belmadi (#Algérie) sont nés la même année et tous deux ont grandi à #Champigny-sur-Marne, en banlieue parisienne. pic.twitter.com/l1H3SPV7Jo
— BBC News Afrique (@bbcafrique) July 19, 2019
What made this matchup even more fascinating, despite being a repeat from the group phase and two of Africa’s most promising young coaches (born only a day apart) going head to head, is the friendship shared between them. Belmadi, like many who have represented the Desert foxes was born outside Algeria and whilst growing up in Paris he’d meet Cisse forging a rapport. As much as this meeting was poetic it was totally understandable for this night only – with so much riding on it as the winner becomes the 12th man to lead his Afcon nation to success – that friends became sworn enemies.
2. Mane and Mahrez take a backseat
No question which match-up drew the neutrals. Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane belong in a group of explosive forwards that have dominated English football’s premier competition for the last several years. Though, it’s fair to say, coming into these championships momentum was on Mane’s side – having played an instrumental role in Liverpool’s spectacular campaign which ended by lifting the European Cup – even if Mahrez won a second Premier League winners medal the foxy Algerian forward was reduced to a bit-part role under Pep Guardiola, but whenever fielded showed his class, and that was the case when he took their semi-final against Nigeria by the scruff of the neck.
Both came into the final bagging three goals, with Mane registering one assist pulling him ahead, this was being billed as the marquee proxy battle that could ultimately decide the fate of the 32nd Afcon final. But, as we’ve all come to expect so many times before, it failed to live up to the hype. Although his side took an early lead, Mahrez was effectively anonymous throughout. If anything it was Mane who proved to be the more dangerous threat even if he produced one paltry shot on goal (that went off target) plus one chance created. He did, though, complete three take-ons compared to Mahrez’s none but the City man pulled off four tackles – showcasing his defensive worth – but that’s not what you initially expect from him.
3. Bounedjah’s boom
Finals are nervy affairs, so it’s imperative to begin as well as possible. Algeria, playing in their first Afcon showpiece event since 1990, couldn’t have imagined starting the way they did. Belmadi’s men left it very late against the Super Eagles in the previous round, and the Desert Warriors momentum following Mahrez’s sensational free-kick carried them from the get-go. Despite a nervy opening few seconds, Senegal already finding their way into Algeria’s penalty area, they would go in front with the game barely two minutes old.
— DW Sports (@dw_sports) July 19, 2019
Baghdad Bounedjah received the ball from Ismael Bennacer halfway inside Senegal’s half and would race towards goal before unleashing a fierce shot that took a wicked deflection off Salif Sané and carried the ball over a rooted Alfred Gomis stunning everyone in attendance including Bounedjah himself. He didn’t plan to, but the Al-Sadd striker had entered the record books. Bounedjah matched the fastest time a goal was registered in a Afcon final a feat previously shared between Nigerian forward Segun Odegbami (1980) and Egyptian marksman Ad-Diba (1957).
4. VAR evokes Koulibaly’s absence
After falling behind so early you wouldn’t expect anything less than Senegal chasing the equaliser. They would tentatively approach Rais M’bolhi goal, but never really gave him a fright, though he did pull off a wonderful save late on. The big moment, however, came just after the hour mark. A cross from energetic winger Ismaila Sarr was met by Adlène Guedioura’s hand and though he couldn’t get out of the way referee Alioum Alioum didn’t hesitate to award the spotkick.
VAR time pic.twitter.com/v1h46L3jEq
— DZfoot (@DZfoot) July 19, 2019
But with the video assistant referee in use, and this being such a pivotal moment watched by millions, there was no harm in looking again especially as on replay it seemed a harsh decision as Guedioura’s action was not deliberate. Unfortunately for the side behind it was overturned. A frustrating moment that quickly drew minds on Senegal’s best player Kalidou Koulibaly who missed this final after being yellow carded for a similar offence in their semi-final against Tunisia.
5. Defense wins championships
This well-known adage proved true in Egypt this summer. Algeria, when it was all said and done, were deserved champions even if they second best tonight. They finished having boasted the tournament’s best defence. After keeping three consecutive shutouts in the group phase they’d conceded two goals across four knockout matches. Key to Belmadi’s team success has been the centre-back pairing of Aïssa Mandi and Djamel Eddine Benlamri who featured in all but one of their matches.
— CAF (@CAF_Online) July 19, 2019
Being so ruthless and entrenched with a take no prisoners mentality is a comfort for those playing in front of Algeria’s back line. It consequently allowed their creative forced to go on and cause all sorts of damage. Before the opening ceremony not many backed them for ultimate glory, but this was a lesson in how to navigate tournament football. As their much heavily fancied neighbours fell by the wayside they kept focus and grew as one team deservedly becoming the seventh multi Afcon champion.