The Africa Cup of Nations comes to an end today. Three weeks of top quality football, 24 teams, 552 players, and 51 matches (so far) have boiled down to this one moment: Senegal vs Algeria.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Super Eagles of Nigeria broke the resolve of the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia to earn the tag of the third best team in Africa.
Later on Friday evening, the champion of Africa will be decided between the Teranga Lions and the Desert Foxes.
But who has been the Best Player of the Tournament?
These fantastic talents have been the best the continent has witnessed over the course of the championships and anyone of them could end up being the Golden Ball winner.
The Senegal forward is not just one of the best players in Africa but also in the world. He was the joint top scorer in the English Premier League and then helped Liverpool reclaim the prestigious UEFA Champions League.
A fabulous season just won’t come to an end.
Now he’s 90 minutes away from bringing Senegal the AFCON title for the first time ever. Surely, he would be hard to beat to the Golden Ball if that happens.
Nigeria yet again have gone home with a medal at the AFCON. The Super Eagles almost never leave these continental games empty handed.
This time, there was no Rashidi Yekini, or Nwankwo Kanu (except in the stands) or Austin Okocha. But the 2013 AFCON winners had what others in the championship lacked: a proven goalscorer.
After leading all-comers with seven goals during the qualifying series, the Shanghai Shenhua hotshot then banged another five in the tournament proper.
Surely, he’s the best?
There have been some fine goalkeepers who have displayed top shotstopping skills. Cameroon’s Andre Onana and Senegal’s Alfred Gomis have caught the eye in particular.
But the one who has been a cut above others since the first ball was kicked in Egypt until now is no other but Algeria’s Rais M’Bolhi.
The 33-year-old did not concede a goal until the quarterfinal game against Ivory but that was even after making several impossible saves. And when the game was to be decided on penalties, M’Bolhi came through again, saving from Willy Bony to send Algeria through.
Ighalo is the other man to have scored against Rais but even the top marksman needed a penalty to get the better of the tournament’s safest pair of hands.
Coming off a splendid, league-winning campaign with Manchester City, much was expected from the most expensive player in Africa. And he has not disappointed.
The Algerian captain has been magical all tournament, driving his team forward, helping Le Fennecs play the most attractive football on display in Egypt and leading the Desert Foxes to their first AFCON final since 1990.
Every Algerian has played a part in this hugely successful outing: the fans, the coaches, the players.
But it is Mahrez – his stunning free-kick handed Algeria a semifinal victory over Nigeria and sent the North Africans to their first final in 29 years – whose name will be sang in decades to come.
It has been said that Senegal can survive without Sadio Mane but not without Koulibaly. That theory will be put to test on Friday when Senegal file out against Algeria without their inspirational strongman.
“Europe’s best defender” has shown throughout the tourney why major clubs in the world are jostling to sign him.
The Napoli centre-back has been a joy to watch in Egypt: leading, organising, tackling, easing pressure with a calm head.
It’s no surprise then that the Teranga Lions have kept a clean sheet in all their games bar one – incidentally that one loss was against Algeria in the group stages, the same opponent they are to face in the final.
Koulibaly will miss that game due to suspension. But he’ll be hoping that the team inspired by Mane would cope without him.
Who will be crowned AFCON 2019 Best Player?