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Africa Cup of Nations

Afcon final: Early Bounedjah goal sets tone for fractious Algeria triumph

00:25 WAT 20/07/2019
Baghdad Bounedjah Algeria
The snarling, wily forward found his scoring touch at a critical moment, as small margins decided the Afcon 2019 final in Cairo on Friday

When Baghdad Bounedjah's speculative effort looped off the outstretched leg of Salif Sane and dipped into the Senegalese goal beyond Alfred Gomis, it felt immediately like the worst possible opening to a game that was always destined to be fractious.

There was precedent for what was to come in the first meeting between these sides some three weeks ago, which Algeria won with a second-half Youcef Belaili strike.

Then, the North Africans seemed on a mission to prove they could compete physically, but that strategy appeared to be in service of a mental warfare: by beating Senegal on the front where they seemed strongest, they gained the upper hand by which they then struck in the second half.

Here, the goal came first, and so Algeria's physicality became a wilful perversion, in service of nothing other than simply shutting the game down. The fastest goal ever scored in an Afcon final is a nice little bit of history, but beyond that there is little for which this game will be remembered by the neutral.

In a match dominated by shenanigans, it did, however, feel fitting that it was Bounedjah’s goal that settled it.

Throughout the tournament, he snapped and snarled, revelling in his self-appointed role as villain of the piece. Yet, for all that he seemed on a mission to make his presence felt to every defender who had the misfortune of crossing his path, there was a sense in which he had been curiously absent since the first game of the Afcon.

Since insouciantly rolling the ball past Patrick Matasi from the spot in the opening group fixture against Kenya, Bounedjah’s reel had been a morass of missed opportunities. The highlight, a quarter-final penalty miss over which one suspects he might have had more than a few nightmares had Algeria failed to progress, laid bare just how tightly-wound his trademark disruptive style requires him to be.

The danger was that he might come to be defined by that alone, and increasingly in modern international football, it appears that forwards are less important for what they do in front of goal as what they represent to their sides.

Olivier Giroud famously failed to find the back of the net at the World Cup last summer, and at the last Afcon, Cameroon cycled through strikers with none ever feeling like they had the quality to lead the line until Vincent Aboubakar produced a late moment of brilliance to win it all.

There could be no denying Bounedjah's importance to this Algeria team, setting the tone both in terms of pressing and gamesmanship. And yet, coming into the final, it seemed like he needed a goal just the same, even if only to reassure himself.

The unfortunate patsy, Sane, had himself been missing since the opening game – literally – due to an injury, and even though he had been back fit since after the quarter-finals, he likely would not have featured had Kalidou Koulibaly not been ludicrously suspended for having a shot whacked at his elbow from close range in the semi-final.

On such fine margins do finals turn. Even though, by any measure, Algeria were the best team in Egypt, it still came down to a freakish deflection, and they still suffered greatly in this final. A lot of it their own doing, it must be said, and as in the first game they rode their luck in both boxes.

Mehdi Zeffane’s tackle on Ismaila Sarr in the first half should have, at the very least, warranted a VAR check, and even though Adlene Guedioura’s handball did, referee Alioum seemed to not be applying the new handball rules in reversing his earlier decision to award a penalty.

That is the danger, of course, with dropping as deep as Djamel Belmadi’s side did, and looking to spoil. It only takes a moment to potentially upset everything.

As it turned out, Senegal, aside not getting the rub on the day, simply lacked the guile to consistently draw their opposition out and create chances. When they did manage it, they found Mbaye Niang in no mood to trouble the scoring charts.

It has been a weakness for Cisse, and perhaps best captures why Algeria are such worthy winners: the ability to wear many hats, to win in so many different ways, made them almost impossible to resist.