Pharaohs hope to tame Lions

2008-02-09 00:00

It was not the finale that would have been predicted, but no one can dispute that Cameroon and Egypt, who contest the African Nations Cup final at Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra tomorrow, have reached the last match on merit.

Cameroon are aiming for their fifth Nations Cup title to equal Egypt’s record. The Pharaohs are on the verge of a staggering sixth triumph, and will attempt to be the first team to succcessfully defend the trophy since Cameroon in 2000 and 2002.

Of the two teams it is the north African defending champions who have been the most convincing. Cameroon appeared a spent force after their opening 4-2 defeat against the opponents they will face in a rematch tomorrow, but have had a late resurgence.

Egypt, who have retained the core of their victorious team on home soil in 2006 under tough-as-nails coach Hassan Shehata, have been the model of professionalism, producing clinical if unspectacular performances to progress as the winners of Group C, in which Cameroon were second.

The Egyptians dispatched Angola 2-1 in the quarter-finals in another precise display, before their tournament so far culminated in a spectacular 4-1 deconstruction of Nations Cup favourites Ivory Coast in Thursday night’s semi-final in Kumasi.

While Cote d’Ivoire had the strongest team on paper at the tournament, the Pharaohs have been easily the most tactically disciplined. They alternate between a 3-5-2 formation in attack and 5-3-2 in defence that is a well-practised system and one they have now utilised with success at two Nations Cups.

Against Ivory Coast, in a replay of the goalless 2006 final where Egypt won on penalties, the Pharaohs also displayed an ability to play possession football and spread the ball around swiftly. Egypt also have their fair share of star players, not least midfielder Mohamed Abou Trika, the best African player currently not based in Europe.

Silky, refined Abou Trika is one of a host of players from Cairo’s African club of the century, Al Ahly, who form the core of the Egyptian team. Others include El Hadary, right wing-back Ahmed Fathi, defender Shady Mohamed and striker Emad Moteab.

Their two other stars of the tournament are bald-headed brick-wall central defender Wael Gomaa, currently loaned out from Al Ahly to to Al-Silya in Qatar, and the two-goal hero of the semi-final, big Zamalek striker Amr Zaky. Ismaily midfielder Hosny Abd Rabou has scored four times (twice from penalties) and has proved a vital link-man between defence and attack.

Pitched against the Egyptians in what promises to be another fascinating contest of contrasting styles in the mould of the semi against Ivory Coast, will be a Cameroon team who have been the most successful in Africa over the past decade, but appeared to be a power on the wane at this tournament.

The Indomitable Lions’ opening nightmare against Egypt was put behind them with convincing 5-1 then 3-0 victories over Zambia and Sudan. Their quarter-final against Tunisia was a five-goal thriller where Cameroon showed they still have the fight, if not quite the talent of recent years, to be a force.

The Lions shocked hosts Ghana 1-0 in Accra on Thursday, capitalising on some indecisive tactical decisions from Black Stars coach Claude Le Roy, and showing the required determination to reach the final.

Cameroon’s goal against Ghana was scored by substitute Alain Nkong, and 70-year-old coach Otto Pfister said this shows the all-round strength of his squad, in which veterans such as 35-year-old Rigobert Song, Joseph-Desire Job and Geremie Njitap have combined with young prospects like Alexandre Song and Stephane Mbia.

"Cameroon has the best bench in the tournament. There’s no difference between each player," Pfister said.

Nkong said Cameroon showed they have the temperament to survive pressure matches in their tightly-contested quarter and semi-finals.

"In the end it was our mental strength that got us through," the forward said. "We were criticised so much after the first match. Every match has been a final for us since then."

Cameroon’s player to watch most tomorrow will be Samuel Eto’o. The Barcelona striker is the tournament’s top scorer with five goals, though three of those have come from the penalty spot. In the process Eto’o passed Ivorian Laurent Pokou’s record of 14 Nations Cup goals to go to 15.

The striker has not scored in the knockout rounds yet, but an example of his influence was the killer pass that set up Nkong’s goal against Ghana. The form of a slightly out-of-touch Eto’o could be crucial to Cameroon in their quest to halt what should be Egypt’s march to a sixth title.

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