CAIRO – We are all in agreement that football is a team sport, but there are some individuals so hugely talented and influential that they can single-handedly carry a team.
When Senegal and Algeria battle it out for the crown of African champions in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations at the Cairo International Stadium tonight (9pm), both countries will have in their starting line-up a player they will pin their hopes on.
For Senegal’s Lions of Teranga, seeking their maiden continental title, Sadio Mane of Liverpool is that man. Algeria’s Desert Foxes will depend on Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez.
Both these players arrived in Egypt having put special club football medals into their cabinets.
After a titanic battle for English Premier League supremacy, with City and Liverpool pushing each other every week, Mahrez’s City finished as champions of England with a massive 98 points - one ahead of Mane’s Liverpool, who consoled themselves with the Uefa Champions League title for the sixth time.
Mane would give up that medal in a heartbeat for the one that no Senegalese has ever won.
“To win for my country, which has never won a Cup of Nations, would be magnificent. I am even ready to trade in my Champions League success to win the Africa Cup of Nations,” Mane told France Football before the start of the Afcon.
“The return to Dakar (with the trophy) would be extraordinary. That is my craziest dream.”
That dream is 90 minutes away and Senegal’s hopes rest on their talisman Mane, who has a more than capable supporting cast in the side that’s looking to go one better than the team that lost in the final 17 years ago.
Aliou Cisse captained that team and he is now the coach. Right after they beat Tunisia in the semi-finals, Cisse said that the current crop is better than his generation.
Standing in their way is a team led by a man who has seen his side get the better of Mane’s team. Mahrez played an instrumental role in City’s Premier League victory over Liverpool.
His magical touch is the reason Algeria are here. Mahrez’s well-taken free-kick against Nigeria took his country to the final for the first time since 1990.
“We have been very good in this tournament. We have scored 12 goals and conceded two. We already have the confidence to challenge for the title but the game against Nigeria gave us more confidence to play the final,” Mahrez said.
Algeria beat Senegal in the group stage to finish top of their group. Another victory tonight would make this a spectacular season for Mahrez.