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2021 AFCON final: Who wears the crown, Salah or Mane?

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They are friends; they are teammates but Liverpool forwards Sadio Mane and Muhammed Salah will certainly suspend conviviality when they lead out their respective countries in the final of the 2021 African Cup of Nations on Sunday. Very many top sides have fallen by the way but Africa couldn’t have asked for a better final where the two best players on the continent clash on the biggest stage. Mane is the current African Player of the Year; he actually succeeded his Liverpool teammate Salah and the outcome of this clash will largely determine where the next crown will swing.

Salah was arguably the best performer in the world before the start of the competition; he had managed 23 goals in just 26 matches across all competitions for Liverpool and was expected to dominate AFCON. Although he hasn’t quite pulled the trees the way many expected he is the reason Egypt reached the final of this competition. The Pharaohs were not one of the hot favourites for the crown despite Salah’s presence; the Liverpool superstar is not well surrounded with talent that could sweep opponents away and the squad hadn’t significantly improved from the one that crashed out of the tournament in the quarterfinal three years ago even as hosts.

Their performance in their opening match when they lost 1-0 to the Super Eagles of Nigeria lent credence to that assertion but they rose from that disappointment to fight their way to the final of the tournament, dispatching top teams including Ivory Coast, Morocco and Cameroon in the knockout stage playing more than 120 minutes of football in each of their last three encounters.

Salah has managed just two goals in this tournament so far but his performance against Morocco when he scored a goal and assisted the winner had the trappings of a superstar. Like Salah, Mane grew into the competition; although he marked his opening match with a goal he didn’t add to that tally until the second round when he opened the account in the 2-0 win against Cape Verde. The semifinal clash with Burkina Faso represented their toughest match so far in the competition and Mane stepped to the plate with a goal and one assist to guide his side to a 3-1 win to set up this final.

Salah and Mane made their AFCON debut the same year in 2007 and have not only become the highest scorers for their countries in the competition since then but have scored more goals than any of their teammates during the period. They carry the burden of their squads firmly on their shoulders and the duo will be expected to make all the difference this time. It is hard to separate the two players in terms of quality but on current form, Salah seems to edge it. His statistics before they headed for this tournament completely eclipsed that of his clubmate.

Salah has 16 goals and a total of 40 shots on goals in the league this term so far while Mane logged in 8 goals and a total of 24 shots on goals. The Egyptian has had a total of 8 assists, 50 key passes created a total of 18 chances but the Senegalese has a total of two assists, 31 key passes, but has created just two chances.

Mane is luckier to have been surrounded by quality players including Chelsea’s goalie, Edouard Mendy, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, Ismaila Sarr of Watford, Boulaye Dia of Valencia and others who are still nursing the injury of losing the final of the competition to Algeria three years ago. Who will have the last laugh, Salah or Mane? We will find out at Olembe Stadium in Yaounde on Sunday.

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