Africa Cup of Nations final preview: Can lively Cameroon humble ruthlessly efficient Egypt?
Nick Ames reports from Gabon ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations final featuring Cameroon and Egypt.
Libreville’s Beach Club, usually a mellow enough location at which expats and middle-class local families sip drinks while milling around the pool, was in party mode. The set of ‘Soir de CAN’, the nightly Africa Cup of Nations talk and highlights show screened on Canal+, is installed here and on Thursday night, with Cameroon taking centre stage after their semi-final win over Ghana, most members of the audience could barely contain themselves.
Cameroon have strong backing in Gabon. Some estimates put the number of expats living here at 500,000 – almost a third of the country’s population – and many of the indigenous population are quite happy to adopt their cause too. It meant the Beach Club was packed with followers of the Indomitable Lions, many hoping to appear in the background of a programme whose star pundit was the ex-Cameroon striker Patrick Mboma, and their exuberance was such that the producers had to calm proceedings down on several occasions.
Their excitement is justified. Cameroon’s presence in the final could hardly have been expected at the start of a tournament from which several key players, including the Liverpool centre-back Joel Matip, chose to absent themselves. Yet they fully deserve to step out against Egypt, who will start as favourites, in a repeat of the 1986 and 2008 finals – and after the manner of their swashbuckling 2-0 victory against the Ghanaians you would hardly rule them out.
It will be like a home game for Cameroon. Buses packed with supporters are reportedly making the journey south from Douala and Yaounde, Cameroon’s two biggest cities, in time for the final; Egypt will be backed by a small minority of those present although if one team in this competition could have been backed to show the bloody-mindedness required for success, it was Hector Cuper’s sturdy outfit.
Egypt have been hard to love over the past three weeks but their suitability for tournament football is beyond question. Cuper, twice a Champions League runner-up when in charge of Valencia shortly after the turn of the millennium, has solidified them and established a sturdy, deep-sitting defensive block that generally sits off opponents before trying to spring the likes of Mohamed Salah and Trezeguet free on the counter. The goal scored by Burkina Faso’s Aristide Bance in their semi-final was the first Egypt had conceded in Gabon; Salah had already produced a flourish of his own at the other end, making rare possession count with a fine curler into the top corner.
So Egypt have, on the face of things, been ruthlessly efficient even if it took penalties to overcome an excellent Burkina Faso side. The truth is slightly more nuanced; opponents with sharper edges than the Burkinabe or Morocco, who were beaten 1-0 in the last eight, would probably have punished Egypt’s reactive style. They have not always looked watertight despite the impressive performances of centre-back pair Ali Gabr and Ahmed Hegazy, and Cameroon could be lively enough to take advantage.
They will have a fine chance if Christian Bassogog, perhaps the revelation of this tournament, steps up to the plate once more. The 21-year-old winger’s rapid rise from obscurity can best be summed up by the fact that, six months ago, the Cameroon manager Hugo Broos had not heard of him. Bassogog plays for Danish side AaB but 18 months ago was representing Wilmington Hammerheads in the American fourth tier; it was his deft late finish that sealed the win against Ghana but his performances throughout this Cup of Nations have been enchanting and will have caught the attention of clubs in bigger leagues. Other Cameroon players to have stepped up include the 30-year-old midfielder Sebastien Siani, relatively unheralded with Belgian side Oostende, and the Standard Liege right-back Collins Fai.
All that remains is for the two teams to produce a match worthy of what has been the liveliest, most entertaining Cup of Nations in some years. It is not a tournament renowned for producing memorable finals: there have only been three goals in the last six, and you have to go back to Tunisia’s 2-1 win over Morocco in 2006 for a decider in which defences were breached more than once. Egypt, 24 games unbeaten in Cup of Nations finals, will win a fourth consecutive tournament in which they have participated if Cuper’s tactics pay off once more; Cameroon are desperate for a first title since 2002. The stakes are high; a thriller may be too much to ask.
If the result goes as they wish then that will not overly bother the throng who, inevitably, will gather at the Beach Club on Sunday night to see whether Cameroon can conjure the unexpected again. Libreville will, for one night, see its Cameroonian influence more pronounced than ever before – and the Indomitable Lions have the quality to respond accordingly.