IN CAIRO, EGYPT
A brief skirmish flared up on one side of the Cairo International Stadium stands during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semi-final match between Algeria and Nigeria on Sunday night.
Incensed Algerian fans began throwing water bottles and other missiles at Egyptian fans after the home fans broke out in chants of “Nigeria, Nigeria!” when the Super Eagles had levelled the scores 1-1 midway through the second half.
The Egyptian section retaliated in kind, and things looked set to turn ugly before more security personnel arrived en masse in the area to create a buffer.
That incident was the only thing that went wrong for Algeria that day as they produced a near-flawless performance to silence three-time African champions Nigeria and storm to their first final in 29 years and third in history.
Algeria coach local boy Djamel Belmadi, who handled Qatar between 2014 and 2015, had talked about his set of players writing their own history and the way they went about dismissing Nigeria, they will have already completed key chapters of this tale.
“We had a plan. We knew their strengths was speed on the wings. We tried to close that space and control the midfield. We also told our striker to pressure their two central defenders and it worked for us,” Belmadi, 43, said of his tactics.
Algeria were admittedly pleasant to watch, with their possession football, quick, incisive passing and positive approach.
With the tough Adlane Guedioura of Nottingham Forest winning almost every ball in midfield and outstanding Empoli midfielder Ismael Bennacer directing the offensive play, the well balanced Foxes immediately put Nigeria on the ropes.
A more accurate Baghdad Bounedjah would have seen Algeria two or three goals up in the first half. It took two magical moments from Manchester City’s forward Riyad Mahrez to eventually decide the contest.
The star Algerian man was largely responsible for their opener, leaving Nigerian left back Jamilu Collins for dead before whipping in a dangerous cross that was sent in by William Ekong for an own goal two minutes to half time.
Nigeria equalised via an Odion Ighalo penalty kick after a VAR review led to Aissa Mandi being ruled to have handled the ball in the box.
Mahrez then smashed in a superb free kick from the edge of the danger box in stoppage time to seal a deserved win for the 1990 African champions.
“It was a wonderful free kick to win the match,” Nigerian coach Gernot Rohr acknowledged. Africa’s top ranked team Senegal, who needed extra time to dismiss Tunisia in the other semi-final, wait in the final.
“To be in the final of the Nations Cup is unbelievable. Our dream is to carry the title. We have been very good in this tournament. We have scored 12 goals and conceded two. Beating a tough team like Nigeria gives us the confidence going into the final against Senegal,” said man of the match Mahrez.
Thousands of Algerians travelled to Egypt for the semis and required almost 50 buses to take them to the stadium. Chanting “One, two, three, viva Algerie!” has been their calling card.
The Desert Foxes may give them another reason to make that chant long after action ceases in Friday’s final.