Afcon final unites two African coaches who represent the future | Jonathan Wilson

Djamel Belmadi and Aliou Cissé used time in Europe to improve their sides and a tactical battle will decide fate of Algeria and Senegal

Champigny-sur-Marne is a banlieue about eight miles south-east of the centre of Paris. Algeria’s coach, Djamel Belmadi, was born there; Senegal’s coach, Aliou Cissé, moved there from Ziguinchor at the age of nine (Cissé is one day older). Since then they have performed an awkward dance, always threatening to meet and very rarely doing so.

They played against each other at youth level. They came head-to-head in a league game between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain in February 2001, and then with their national teams two months later. Belmadi was at Southampton when Cissé was at Portsmouth but they never played against each other in England. And on Friday, on the greatest stage either has yet trod, their sides will meet in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Such are the complexities of nationality, though, that this is also the first time since 1998, and only the sixth time in the tournament’s history, that both finalists will be managed by a “home” coach. Both Cissé and Belmadi are in charge of squads made up of players whose experiences have been similar, who understand the life of a footballer who plays his club football in one country but plays international football often on another continent. There is no guarantee there will be another Cissé or Belmadi ready to replace them, but equally their achievements, and the fact that, with varying degrees of success, Ivory Coast, Ghana and DR Congo have eschewed the familiar list of itinerant Europeans (in total 14 of the 24 nations in Egypt were managed by foreigners) feels as if it is a step in the right direction.

Algeria beat Senegal 1-0 in the group stage and, as the Nigeria manager, Gernot Rohr, acknowledged, they have been the most impressive side in the tournament. Given they finished bottom of their qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup, well-beaten by a Nigeria side they beat in the semi-final, that represents a remarkable improvement.

For the Nottingham Forest midfielder Adlène Guédioura, the development is primarily attributable to Belmadi, who took over last August. “He really knows the players and really knows what he wants, and the good thing as well is he knows how to pass that on to the players,” he said. “It’s important because if you don’t have a good cook you won’t have a good meal.”

Rohr has spoken enthusiastically of the tactical progress made by les Fennecs.

Youcef Belaili strikes to score the decisive goal in Algeria’s win against Senegal in the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Youcef Belaili strikes to score the decisive goal in Algeria’s win against Senegal in the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations. Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Algeria in recent years had developed a reputation for attractive football undermined by indiscipline, a lack of steel, and, at times, the absence of a tactical plan. “We used to have good individuals but now we feel very strong as a team,” Guédioura said. His inclusion in the side after almost two years in the wilderness is one of Belmadi’s triumphs as he has revelled in a conservative role protecting the back four.

“He was really unfairly criticised – irrationally,” Belmadi said. “I insisted he’s at the press conference today, because I wanted to credit him in front of everyone. We spoke like men before the Cup of Nations. I would even say he’s undroppable now.”

In their way stand a Senegal side who are undeniably talented, but talented in one particular area: pace out wide. That was a problem for them in the quarter-final two years ago, when Cameroon sat deep, denied them space, frustrated them and eventually won on penalties, and it is likely to be a problem on Friday given how efficiently Algeria closed down the space available to Nigeria’s wingers in the semi-final.

Sadio Mané will operate on one flank but through the tournament Cissé has not settled on who plays on the other wing: it could be Keita Baldé, it could be Ismaïla Sarr, it could be Krépin Diatta. Or he may do what he did at times in qualifying, seek to sidestep whatever plans Belmadi has put in place for his wide men and abandon the 4-3-3 for a more direct 4-4-2.

A bigger issue than who plays wide, though, is what Cissé does at the heart of his defence. Already without Salif Sané who was injured in Senegal’s first game, he must now also find cover for the Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly who is suspended after collecting an extremely harsh yellow card in the semi-final, after he failed to get his arm out of the way of a shot in conceding the penalty Tunisia missed. The centre-forward Baghdad Bounedjah, another surprise Belmadi selection who has thrived at this tournament, has just the sort of streetwise awkwardness to take advantage of a makeshift back four.

Belmadi and Cissé feel like part of a new generation of coaches, African with significant European experience, who represent the future. Both have had a significant impact on their sides, sufficient that this feels like a battle between them more than it does between, say, Sadio Mané and Riyad Mahrez, or Guédioura and Idrissa Gueye.

History looms for both sides – Senegal have never won the Cup of Nations; Algeria have not won it for 29 years; Champigny will win either way.

Contributor

Jonathan Wilson in Cairo

The GuardianTramp

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