Senegal can't afford another no-show like their loss to Algeria
CAIRO -- Nine times out of 10, Sadio Mane might have looked up and seen the referee's outstretched arm pointing towards the penalty spot. It had been some clattering from a combination of Adlene Guedioura and Ramy Bensebaini as he made his latest incursion into Algeria's box with 19 minutes left, and the number of agonised rolls it brought from Mane seemed to prove the point. But Ahmad Heeralall was unmoved -- inexplicably, to most eyes -- and Senegal's brightest star received further proof that this was not to be his night.
Instead it was Algeria's and, in winning the first clash between genuine heavyweights of this Africa Cup of Nations, they laid down a big marker. There was not much pretty about this game, even if Mohamed Belaili's 49th-minute winner was superbly constructed and taken, but they have set the early standard and did an expert job of showing Senegal -- highly favoured to break their AFCON duck in the build-up -- exactly how much work they must still do.
Before the game, Aliou Cisse said his team was "going to take a test" against Djamel Belmadi's Algeria. Senegal flunked it, letting a promising start go to waste and becoming bogged in a morass of petty fouls and patchy, patternless play that took any pace out of the game and played straight into their opponents' hands. Algeria have fielded far more cynical teams than this but there remain few better sides at breaking up a match and denying it any rhythm at all. They did that here, while looking far more fluent than Senegal whenever a game of football did break out.
That was proved in the sweeping move from which Belaili, taking a touch to control Sofiane Feghouli's low centre before blasting home from 18 yards, scored the decisive goal. Algeria were slick in those passages of unbroken play; Senegal, the top-ranked side in Africa but one with long-standing issues playing through the midfield, looked lumpen by comparison and resorted to direct, harmless balls towards their forwards.
Mane, returning from suspension, was at least sprightly, having some joy on the left flank early on before coming under increasingly heavy amount of -- often illegal -- attention. But Mbaye Niang had a forgettable game leading the line and the thrust of Ismaila Sarr, one of four players to miss out through injury, was badly missed.
"Today on the tactics side it was very interesting; you cannot leave space against sides like Senegal otherwise you pay for it," said Belmadi. He praised his players for following his instructions to the letter. It meant Algeria deserved to win a tense, occasionally spiteful encounter that did, at least, have the spit and crackle of a match between close rivals even if thrills were few.
Unfortunately there was extra tension outside the stadium as fans rushed to make kickoff. The host nation's matches apart, this AFCON has seen low crowds across the board so far. That is not particularly new but perhaps it meant organisers were ill-prepared for an influx of supporters -- some of whom seemingly did not have tickets for the game -- attempting to enter the turnstiles from the west side. Some were pictures climbing over the gates and in, amid a dangerous crush. Everyone appeared to make it in safely and the atmosphere inside matched the occasion, but it will leave the Confederation of African Football with serious questions to answer.
This was a big game but what if it had been a quarterfinal between Morocco and Egypt, a fixture that could yet take place at 30 June Stadium? This venue has a tragic past, with 20 fans dying in 2015 after a stampede at the gates when police used teargas to disperse them.
While the authorities are put under the spotlight, Cisse will be under scrutiny of less grave consequence before what now looks a decisive match against Kenya. He knew his team had just not got going; just as Algeria, with their vigorous celebrations in front of a massed support, knew they had proved something here.
"This defeat is a warning," he said, pointing out that he had learned plenty about several of his second-choice players, with Idrissa Gueye among those laid low. "High-level games are played on details and we will have to raise our level next time. Sadio Mane can do better, just like the others."
Mane would probably have agreed after twisting to head a corner over the bar with the game's last action. His luck was out but the bottom line is that Senegal cannot afford another no-show like this.