It is always interesting to see how the psychological game plays out in the lead-up to a big match with everything at stake, such as an Africa Cup of Nations semi-final.
Senegal will clash with Tunisia in the first semi-final at the 30 June Stadium in New Cairo from 7pm (Kenyan time) while Algeria will tussle with Nigeria in the second semis at Cairo International Stadium in Nasr City from 10pm on Sunday.
Senegal will be trying to win the title for the first time when they come up against Tunisia.
The Teranga Lions are the highest-ranked African nation, at 22nd in the world, and coach Aliou Cisse is bidding to lead his country a step further than the team he captained in an agonising penalty shootout defeat to Cameroon at the 2002 final. Senegal are making a first semi-final appearance since 2006, while tonight’s opponents Tunisia have not advanced this far since winning the competition on home soil 15 years ago.
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr was quick to label Algeria the favourites despite being put to task for saying that a team that beats a favourite then becomes the favourite.
“I know we beat South Africa that team I said were favourites to win the tournament after they eliminated Egypt who were the pre-tournament favourites. But Algeria have been playing very well particularly in the group stages and have been considered favourites. And they are for this match. We are second,” said the German.
The Desert Foxes indeed stormed to the quarter-finals with an impressive record of scoring nine goals without conceding, 100 per cent record, then battled to a 1-1 draw with Cote d’Ivoire before knocking the Elephants out on penalty kicks to enter the semi-finals as one of the form teams of the tournament.
But their coach Djamel Belmadi was not going to accept that tag of favourites. “At this stage every team is equal,” he said. “We are the lowest ranked of the four teams in the semi-finals.”
Then the compliments trade-offs.
“Algeria are a balanced team defensively and offensively. They are a dangerous team and we have to be cautious. We must make use of our opportunities to score and cut back on our mistakes. We have already conceded six goals which is not acceptable,” said Rohr.
“Nigeria is a strong side with quality players. We need to play at a faster pace and make sure we are alert defensively. We know where we can go and what we can do,” said Belmadi.
Journalists from the respective countries joined in the verbal exchange. At a packed press conference at Cairo Stadium Belmadi responded thus when asked by a Nigerian scribe what he was going to do to stop his players from “using their well-known dark tricks to win fouls”:
“If you are trying to put pressure on us that is not the way to do it. It is the referee who decides on what is foul play and what is not foul play.”
The Algerian press battalion clapped loudly in response forcing the Caf media officer overseeing the function to intervene and tell all the journalists present to do their job and stop openly showing their support for their respective national teams.
History shows Algeria, despite producing some of Africa’s best players, have only one Afcon title to their name, won in 1990 when they hosted the championship.
“Yes we won at home, have had great players and played in the World Cup. But this crop of players wants to write their own history,” said Belmadi.
“I have played 20 players from my 23-man squad so far. The moment will come tomorrow to bring the best team to the pitch. We are well prepared mentally,” said Rohr.
This promises to be an intriguing encounter.
Tunisia v Senegal (At 30 June Stadium in New Cairo 7pm)
Algeria v Nigeria (At Cairo International Stadium 10pm)