Douala – Wednesday’s Africa Cup of Nations last-16 tie between Egypt and the Ivory Coast brings together two of the continent’s heavyweight teams who have plenty of history as well as two of the most exciting attacking players in the world just now.
Mohamed Salah leads an Egypt side looking to add to their record haul of seven AFCON titles, while the Ivorians – with Sebastien Haller leading the line – are chasing a third crown.
Not everyone in Cameroon will have the appetite for the competition to continue after the tragic events of Monday in Yaounde, but there will be a big, expectant crowd at the Japoma Stadium in economic capital Douala, where the majority of supporters will likely be backing the Elephants.
They must find a way of stopping Salah without neglecting the rest of Carlos Queiroz’s team, even if Egypt hardly set the tournament alight in the group stage, losing 1-0 to Nigeria before beating Guinea-Bissau and Sudan by the same scoreline.
“We always seem to face big teams with great experience in the competition,” said Ivory Coast coach Patrice Beaumelle, whose side beat Algeria 3-1 in their last outing to eliminate the reigning champions.
“They are a very experienced team whose players almost all play in Egypt and so I suppose they are used to African conditions.
“They always turn up in big games, even if they are not playing brilliantly.”
Beaumelle, who has twice won the Cup of Nations as an assistant coach, said he was preparing for a “tight, tactical battle but an exciting game.”
History favours Egypt
For obvious reasons the focus is drawn to Salah and Haller, even if each has only scored once so far in Cameroon.
The Liverpool forward has 54 goals for his club since the start of last season, including seven this campaign in the UEFA Champions League.
He has won the Premier League and Champions League in recent years but is desperate for international glory with his country.
“It is my country, what I love the most. This trophy for me would be completely different. It would be the closest one to my heart,” Salah said.
Salah’s Champions League tally this season has been bettered only by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, with nine, and by Ajax striker Haller, who netted 10 times in the group stage and became just the second player to score in all six group games, following Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017.
But while Salah has been playing for Egypt for a decade and is at his third Cup of Nations, this is French-born Haller’s first major international tournament.
“In certain aspects the AFCON is more difficult than the Champions League,” Haller admitted on Tuesday.
“Sometimes the conditions are maybe less favourable. We obviously do less work together on the training ground than we do with our clubs, so that all makes it harder.”
As the teams target a place in the quarter-finals and a tie against Morocco, history is certainly on Egypt’s side.
They notably beat the Elephants on the way to winning the trophy in 1986, and then won on penalties in the 2006 final in Cairo, with Didier Drogba one of those to miss from the spot.
Two years later the Pharaohs crushed the Ivorians 4-1 in the semi-finals en route to retaining their crown.
“What matters to us as a team is to live in the present. It is two different teams, different players, different coaches, and the past doesn’t help us to win games,” warned Queiroz.
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