Anyone who had missed the entire 2019 Africa Cup of Nations but tuned in for the final between Algeria and Senegal out of curiosity may have been appalled by what ensued.
Frankly, it was not the greatest game at the Cairo International Stadium as the North African side eked out a 1-0 triumph.
Perhaps a result of the earliest goal in any AFCON final, the encounter was disappointingly a damp squib, decided by Baghdad Bounedjah’s second-minute effort that looped in off an unlucky Salif Sane who had replaced a suspended Kalidou Koulibaly at the heart of the Senegal defence.
Knowing what was at stake, Djamel Belmadi’s troops had little interest in elegance or aesthetics. Rather, they dropped deeper and deeper, looking to frustrate Aliou Cisse’s side en route to a second Nations Cup title since their 1990 triumph as hosts.
“I’m so happy for my people, who have waited for such a long time,” said a delighted Belmadi right after ending the country’s 29-year wait.
The 45-year-old had taken over at the start of August 2018, less than a year before that success, emphasising the magnitude of their achievement.
“We have won the cup outside our country for the first time. If you look at where we came from, I took a team that faced difficulties. To achieve what we have achieved, to finish on top of Africa, I have to say it is excellent.”
It may not have been a memorable final, yet it must not water down the magnificence of that 2019 side throughout the competition.
Having underachieved since their 1990 home triumph — making only one semi-final in 2010 and often exiting at the group phase — the Desert Warriors were the best side to watch at the biennial showpiece.
Among the sides that made it to the last four, Algeria averaged more goals per game and fashioned more big chances. Defensively, they let in only two goals in seven games, joint best with beaten finalists Senegal.
Nearly every neutral had a bias for the Lions of Teranga, who longed for a maiden AFCON crown in only their second final. But the North Africans repeated their group-stage success over Cisse’s team to thwart the Lions’ dream.
The first of those encounters saw Algeria match their best start in the competition since — you guessed it — 1990, where they also won their opening two games at the finals. Maybe it was written in the stars after all.
They had the world-class quality of Riyad Mahrez, but they were far from reliant on the Manchester City wide attacker.
Enjoy the best goal of the year 2019 🏆
— CAF (@CAF_Online) January 7, 2021
Youssef Belaili and Ismael Bennacer — named the tournament’s best player — combined well down the left flank, intermittently rotating positions and causing overloads.
The former netted the winning strike against Senegal in the group phase and opened the scoring from an almost impossible angle in the resounding 3-0 round-of-16 success over Guinea after a tidy give-and-go with Bounedjah.
Bennacer’s effervescence and aggressive ball-carrying offered the side the necessary thrust from midfield and his final ball admirably matched his elegant ball progression. The midfield man set up two of Mahrez’s three strikes and ended the competition with three altogether — no player managed more assists.
Theirs was an astonishing team effort and the fact they have remained unstoppable since is prompting observers to wax lyrical about their prospects of matching two great African sides of this millennium.
Belmadi’s team enter the 2022 tournament unbeaten in 34 games, 40 if you include a successful Arab Cup at the backend of 2021. The former leaves them three games behind Italy’s official 37-game unbeaten run, whereas adding the latter makes the Desert Foxes the undisputed record holder.
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While the ongoing debate remains up for validation, they undoubtedly hold the record for any African team.
However, the next goal is to become only the third nation since 2000 and fifth in the history of the competition to retain their continental crown.
Indeed, it is easier said than done, a claim the legendary Cameroon side of the early 2000s and Egypt from 2006 to 2010 will attest to.
That iteration of the Indomitable Lions ended the continent’s 35-year wait for a successful defence since Ghana’s pair of wins in 1963 and 1965. The Central African nation’s feat was rated higher for the mere fact it was a 16-team showpiece as opposed to a six-nation tourney in the ‘60s.
For those years, Cameroon struck fear into the hearts and minds of the opposition and their mentality saw them claim a pair of AFCON titles away from home soil.
They were not wholly convincing in the 2000 finals, though, qualifying top of their group owing to a superior goal difference (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo accrued four points apiece), eventually conceding five times en route to a shoot-out success over a talented Nigeria outfit.
Defeating the Super Eagles in Lagos was commendable, and the fact they kept their heads despite letting a two-goal lead slip in the deciding game demonstrated their fortitude.
Two years later under Winfried Schafer, the Indomitable Lions’ Golden Generation had evolved, believing in their defensive strength and individual quality in the attacking third to claim another crown in Mali.
They were the only perfect side after the group stage and they remained watertight at the back for the entirety of the showpiece. Interestingly, they needed spot-kicks in Mali as well after playing out a goalless encounter with Senegal after 120 minutes.
Winning one final on penalties is already a tough ask for anyone…but Cameroon did it twice.
Rigobert Song captained that star-studded side comprising Samuel Eto’o, Patrick Mboma, Lauren and Geremi and it took Nigeria’s comeback 2-1 win in the 2004 competition in Tunisia to end the Lions’ unbeaten Nations Cup run.
Many felt it could take ages for another side to replicate what the Lions had achieved. But Egypt quashed those predictions.
Their three-peat from 2006 to 2010 saw the Pharaohs equal Cameroon’s feat and they even added one more for good measure.
The scenes at the final whistle in Omdurman as Algeria beat north African rivals Egypt to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
Keeper Fawzi Chaouchi straddles the crossbar.pic.twitter.com/mWSNR5bil2
— The Blizzard (@blzzrd) December 29, 2020
That relentless group consisting of nearly home-based stars claimed the title on home turf, retain in Ghana two years later and win a third straight title in Angola. Three titles, all in different regions on the continent.
To date, Hassan Shehata remains the only manager to claim three successive titles and it will take some beating. His Pharaohs side fell behind only twice in that time — a group stage game against Nigeria and the quarter-final clash with Cameroon, both in 2010 — underscoring their mentality to play on the front foot and resilience to fight back if need be.
The evergreen Ahmed Hassan claimed the best player award in the tournaments either side of their 2008 triumph, the second honour months before his 35th birthday.
Mohamed Aboutrika — arguably the greatest African player to never leave the shores of the continent in his prime — may have missed the 2010 edition through injury, but he scored the winning penalty in ’06 and was the match-winner two years later, netting against the Indomitable Lions with 14 minutes of normal time to play.
It will be remiss to ignore goalkeeping great Essam El Hadary, between the sticks throughout that period of success and named in the tournament XI in all three editions.
Their failure to never make it to the World Cup finals was rather odd, still, it does not diminish their impressive accomplishments for the seven-time African champions.
This is what Belmadi’s go-getting side are up against. The Algeria boss has retained nine of the starters from 2019’s final, with 15 members of that 23 listed in this year’s tournament.
While some may fear complacency could creep in, Islam Slimani reckons the coach has “allowed us to become a real family.”
There is a strong feeling of ambition and determination emanating from the Algeria camp, echoed by captain Mahrez and Belmadi before their opening game against Sierra Leone.
“This will be even harder than the last AFCON,” the skipper remarked in Douala. “Other teams are better, but we come here with the ambition and determination to try to replicate what we did in 2019 and achieve great things again.”
The North African nation failed to make it out of their group in 1992, an ignominious title defence this iteration strive to avoid in this year’s finals, despite the weight of expectation.
“We just have to get on with the pressure,” Belmadi asserted before the Fennec Foxes’ first game.
“Of course, there is a difference between the situation in 2019 and now as we come into the tournament as the holders. But it’s fine. We are ambitious and will do everything to fulfil our objective.”
Claiming this year’s AFCON will not only erase every debate over Algeria’s unbeaten run but it will equally be history-matching for the motivated group. In this form, you will not put it past them to achieve both aims at once.