There’s a video of Riyad Mahrez in Beni Snous, in the northwestern province of Tlemcen, taken in 2017 while he was in the off-season. Then a Leicester player earning millions, he’s seen playing football on the stony floor between two half-mud, half-cement buildings.

Years later, and making significantly more millions at Manchester City, it is hard to shake off the sense that this multiple Premier League winner is still, at heart, that boy from Tlemcen. Just look at him at this Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).

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At training sessions, he shows no airs and mingles easily with his national team-mates. At Tuesday’s session in Cairo, Djamel Belmadi, the coach, pulled him over to explain something. Mahrez – whose monthly salary alone dwarfs any transfer fee Belmadi was ever paid in a playing career spanning two continents, four countries, over 12 years – sprinted to the gaffer with his hands behind his back.

It was a small detail, but one which tells a big story of how this 43-year old coach has brought respect and dignity back to Les Verts.

That story is eerily similar to what’s going on in the camp of Senegal, as the two sides meet in an AFCON final loaded with storylines.

Algeria's coach Djamel Belmadi (C) and Algeria's forward Riyad Mahrez (R) attend a presser at the 30 June stadium in Cairo on June 22, 2019, on the eve of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) football match between Algeria and Kenya.

Image credit: Getty Images

Channeling the passion

It was late 2012, and Senegal had failed to qualify for the 2013 AFCON. Joseph Koto, who had been in charge, was fired. The prevailing sentiment was that a foreign coach was needed.

Journeymen Pierre Lechantre, Alain Giresse, and Bruno Metsu were headhunted. Lechantre did not want it, and Metsu fell ill soon after talks began. Giresse, whose close relationship with the then powerful Michel Platini had helped him previously land coaching jobs with the Gabon and Mali national teams, was announced as Senegal boss in January 2013.

As is typical of many African football federations, the foreign coach is given an indigene as an assistant. Aliou Cissé, then in charge of Senegal’s Olympic team, turned down a request to fill this role. Cisse made it clear that he could do as well, if not better, than the former French great.

Coach Aliou Cisse of Senegal looks on during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Group C match between Senegal and Tanzania at 30 June Stadium on June 23, 2019 in Cairo, Egypt

Image credit: Getty Images

“Giresse was a disaster as our coach,” Senegalese TV host Modibo Tallo recalls, “It did not take long for our local media to turn on him. When he left, people went back to calling for a local coach. Aliou was the natural successor.”

Not dissimilar to Algeria, then.

In 2017, a new man, Kheireddine Zetchi, took charge of the country’s football federation. Pressed with getting a coach for the national team, Zethci had little choice than to go for Belmadi, who was the people’s choice. Algerians had seen five successive expats in charge with largely unsatisfactory results, and the country was in the mood to try another local coach who could instill national pride in the team again.

That’s how Belmadi’s youth, and public displays of Algerian love, got him the job, becoming the country’s seventh coach since 2016.

“He solved a major problem, quickly, because he started giving talented African-based talents a chance from the beginning, and people loved that,” Algerian journalist Faouzi Matmour tells Eurosport.

When the whole is greater

He’s never been shy to cut off big names who do not fit into his system, but a major criticism of Belmadi, who played briefly for Kevin Keegan’s 2003 Manchester City side, has been his seeming lack of a fluid tactical style. Legendary former Algerian player, Rabah Madjeh, said last week that Belmadi “has improved in that area a lot since this AFCON started.”

That’s true. None of the 24 teams at this AFCON have been as rounded as this Algeria side. Belmadi has them playing intense, high press football with fast breaks that is not reliant on Mahrez.

Three players in this Algerian side (including Napoli’s Adam Ounas and ex-West Ham star Sofiane Feghouli) have eased the City star’s burden, but the story of winger Youcef Belaïli stands out. In 2015, a four-year ban (later reduced to two by the court of arbitration for sport) for testing positive for cocaine seemed to have taken his best years, but sheer determination means that the 27-year old could play in his fourth African final, in eight months, on Friday.

Odion Jude Ighalo of Nigeria taking the ball down in front of Sofiane Feghouli of Algeria during the 2019 African Cup of Nations match between Algeria and Nigeria at the Cairo International Stadium in Cairo, Egypt on July 14,2019.

Image credit: Getty Images

Belaïli featured in the Africa Champions League final in November 2018; in March this year he played in the African Super Cup, and then two months later featured in another Champions League final. Incredibly, the Tunisian-based player scored in all three finals.

This AFCON, his two goals in five games have put the team’s non-European based players in the spotlight, for they symbolize the nationalism that gave Belmadi the job in the first place. “This team is all about the coach, and for a country that’s had player power problems for so long, it is nice to have a grounded team reach a first AFCON final since 1990,” journalist Matmour says.

A culmination

Senegal rarely have patience for their coaches, but this is Cissé’s third tournament, and it shows.

“They are peaking at the right time,” journalist Aliou Goloko tells Eurosport. “Cissé actually started moulding Mané, Gana Gueye, and Kouyate at youth level, and you can see that the bond is there.”

Olivier Verdon of Benin falls tackling Idrissa Gana Gueye of Senegal and tries to pull Gueye down during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final match between Senegal and Benin at 30th June Stadium on July 10, 2019 in Cairo, Egypt.

Image credit: Getty Images

As they’ve grown together, so have their roles. “Sometimes, they decide which positions they should play together. For example, Pape Alioune Ndiaye is known to play as a central midfielder, but the players discussed it and he’s been terrific as a number 6. That’s the trust they have.”

This trust in the team is cautiously being shared by the 15 million fans back home, who have been used to star-studded teams flopping badly. However, Cissé is adamant that this team is better than his own, vaunted 2002 side.

We were good, yes, but we did not win the AFCON. If this group wins, they become better in history. That’s it.

The 12th man

In an unprecedented move, Algerians have been told that showing their passports at the Cairo International Stadium will get them free entry to their end of the ground. As if that is not enough, the government is flying in thousands of fans, in addition to the reported 15 airplanes that brought in a horde for the semi-final win against Nigeria.

This is a big deal for the north Africans. Between 2000 and 2017, Algeria played 27 Africa Cup of Nations games, winning just six. In this 2019 AFCON alone, they’ve won five games and drawn once.

Should Friday’s final against Senegal even end in defeat, one can sense that Algeria, a country that has been in a revolutionary mood for many years, is fighting back through the national team.

“This achievement so far is not about me,” Belmadi, who himself captained his team at the 2004 AFCON, said after beating Nigeria in the semis.

This is for our people back home. We just have to try and finish what we started.

Key tactical battles

Belmadi prefers his youthful side to go in a 4-3-3 or an intricate 4-1-4-1, playing out from the back and overloading the central areas. Senegal’s weakness is in midfield, where they lack as much quality as in defence and attack. There, Algeria’s left-footed midfielder, Ismael Bennacer, would drop deep, and then look for early passes forward, as he did repeatedly against Nigeria.

And then, of course, there is Mahrez. In this tournament, he’s played in deep positions in the build-up. Against Nigeria, he was also seen hugging the touchline to stretch play, while Feghouli pushed higher. The idea is for the Manchester City player to dictate play from deep, dragging opponents while he frees his less fancied – but equally dangerous – team-mates.

Riyad Mahrez (L) of Algeria celebrates after scoring a goal with his team mates during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semifinal football match between Algeria and Nigeria at the Cairo Stadium in Cairo, Egypt on July 14, 2019. Algeria got to the final by

Image credit: Getty Images

But Senegal can play too, as they showed against Tunisia, and when they do, their obvious physicality makes the Teranga Lions dangerous. It may be in this game that Cissé’s side will deploy their speed on the wings, and allow Henri Saivet more freedom in midfield to free Mané upfront.

Senegal will have to deal with a suspension to one of the world’s best defenders, Kalidou Koulibaly, but Schalke’s Salif Sané is a decent replacement, although his poor tacking style can be a problem.

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