It’s a style that used to win big tournaments in Europe. Physical, chippy, unattractive, spoiling, but it was effective this evening in Cairo for an Algerian side that eclipsed a more expansive Senegal, that probably relied too much on Sadio Mane for inspiration.
You feel that with Mane there, the Senegal team are prepared to defer to the ‘great one’ more than they should, so when Liverpool’s Champions’ League winner doesn’t come up trumps, then neither does his country.
Even at that, Senegal dominated proceedings. Goals fashion games and the scene was set here, when Algeria took the lead within the first 120 seconds through a goal of immense fortuitous proportions. They defended for the rest of the game using means fair and foul. They were rugged, determined, probably more determined than the opponent, and played more collectively as a team.
They won’t win too many points however for artistic impression. But this is not ice-dancing, so Algerians won’t worry about that. All that matters to them is that they’ve added a second AFCON title to their only-ever previous success, a long 29 years ago. They’re probably even more elated having carried this off, in of all places, Cairo, such is the intense regional rivalry.
It is hard to argue the Desert Foxes were not the best team in the tournament, having gone through their program undefeated, and in fact defeating beaten finalists Senegal twice. Senegal for their part, and for all their positive play this evening and in the group stages, failed to breach the Algerian defence in 180 minutes of soccer.
The game’s only goal was credited to Baghdad Bounedjah their striker. His speculative shot was possibly not even on target, but it deflected off Salif Sane’s outstretched leg, taking a ridiculous looping action before dropping behind the stranded Alfred Gomis into the net. Schalke’s Sane was playing only due to Kalidou Koulibaly’s suspension after picking up a yellow card in the semi-final, his second in the tournament.
The Algerian coach Djamel Belmadi, not an overwhelmingly popular choice when appointed last August, has moulded a tight, strong physical unit, that’s proved it can dig in and win ugly if that’s what it takes.
If the marquee battle in the final was to be Mahrez v Sane, well then, it petered out like a damp squid. That’s if it ever even caught fire! Mane probably showed up the better, slightly, Mahrez was anonymous, with anything good coming by way of defensive tackles. There was none of the type of soccer that’s earned him such a glowing reputation. His team’s strategy just wasn’t the game-plan for it.
Instead, and throughout the tournament, Algeria’s success probably had more to do with their central defensive pairing of Aissa Mandi and Djamel Eddine Benlamri, a combination that featured in all but one of their 7 matches at the tournament.
It’s not a style that could win tournaments in Europe any longer, but Algerian pride and elation will not be worrying about that tonight.