Both the teams have taken a dramatic semi-final route to reach the final stage. Algeria inflicted a heartbreaking loss to Qatar, with Youcef Belaili scoring the winner in the 17th minute of stoppage time, while a 95th-minute own goal from Egypt captain Amr El-Sulaya gifted Tunisia a place in the final.
Tunisia will rely on Captain Youssef Msakni (left) and Seifeddine Jaziri for goals against Algeria in the final Saturday.
The last-gasp victories have shown Algeria and Tunisia are worthy finalists – a tribute in no small measure to their determination. Algeria will be aiming for their maiden Arab Cup title, with Tunisia aiming for their second after winning the inaugural tournament in 1963. Neither team are at full strength, but Algeria will be happier of the two going into the final.
The Desert Warriors came to Qatar without international stars such as Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani, but have barely missed them. The African champions will rely once again on their lethal trio of Youssef Belaili, Yacine Brahimi and Baghdad Bounedjah.
The Tunisian camp, meanwhile, wore a grim look Friday after they lost the services of Yassine Meriah. The defender tore his cruciate ligament during their semi-final clash with Egypt, in what is a big blow for coach Mondher Kebaier, as the 28-year-defender was one of the mainstays of the Tunisian defence and ever present until the injury.
In Meriah’s absence, Kebaier will be forced to switch to back four to counter the threat of Belaili, Brahimi and Bounedjah. The Al Sadd star Bounedjah in Algeria’s danger man. The 30-year-old forward troubled the Qatari defence throughout his 68-minute stay against Qatar, before limping out with a muscle strain.
Having said that, history is one Tunisia’s side. The Eagles of Carthage have not lost to Algeria in a competitive match at the senior level in 34 years. Their last defeat to North African neighbours was in the Africa Cup qualifiers in 1987. However, the last time these two sides met in a friendly on June 11 this year, Algeria prevailed with goals from Mahrez and Bounedjah.
Algerian coach Madjid Bougherra did not make much of the past results, but said the history between the two sides meant it will be a tough match. “It’s a North African derby and both teams know each other well. It’s an open game and the team which will be best on the pitch will win,” Bougherra said Friday.
“Since the day we have arrived in Qatar, we have just one goal, to win every match we play. We are only thinking about winning the trophy. Tunisia have a lot of experience and they deserved to be in the final. It will be like a match against Morocco as it is another North African derby. The team which will show better fighting spirit will win. We played very hectic matches without getting much time to recover and I hope the players will be fit and go into the match with fresh legs. We need to be very focused against Tunisia,” he added.
Tunisian coach Mondher Kebaier will be hoping striker Seifeddine Jaziri and captain Youssef Msakni will match the threat of Algerian forwards. Jaziri with four goals is the tournament top scorer, while Msakni has netted two. But it’s the talented young midfielder Hannibal Mejbri, who has been named man of the match in the Carthage Eagles’ last three outings, who will hold key to his team’s title hopes.
Manchester United midfielder Mejbri says winning the Arab Cup would mean ‘so much’ for the football-obsessed country of Tunisia. “Of course, I’m really, really excited for the final against Algeria. After all, it’s the final. We’re going to give absolutely everything and concentrate on our game,” he said.
“It would mean so much, not just for the players but for the country as a whole. Everyone knows what it’s like in Africa and in Tunisia: we live, eat and sleep football. So if we were to win then it’d bring us even closer to our people, moving in the right direction together and it would give us so much strength to go on and achieve even more,” the 18-year-old said,
Meanwhile, Tunisian coach Kebaier said his team will play against Algeria with full force with an aim to win the title. “We will use all our experience and talent to get the victory in the final. We want to win the title for our fans and injured Yassine Meriah. It will be a balanced match as both teams will enter with equal chance. We faced a lot of injuries and missed players due to Covid-19. We have to overcome the absence of Yassine Meriah also,” he said.