AFCON 2021

Semi-finals – Tactical match-ups

Ahead of the final four, a look at the key areas of tactical advantage in each tie, and the likeliest path to victory.

Senegal star Sadio Mane pauses for thought during the quarter-final triumph over Equatorial Guinea in Yaounde.

The field of potential 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) winners is now smaller than it has ever been. With a place in the final up for grabs, here is a consideration of where and how the semi-final pairings are likely to be decided.

The Stallions were impressive in their win over Tunisia, using the movement of their front three to drag the Carthage Eagles backline all over the place.

There were a couple of hairy moments at the end, especially following the red card to goalscorer Dango Ouattara, but Burkina Faso defended them extremely well, with Edmond Tapsoba, in particular, shining with his composure.

Senegal will present a different challenge as, unlike Tunisia, their defenders are eminently comfortable with space behind. However, Burkina Faso boss Kamou Malo has intelligently varied his approach and selection throughout the tournament, and will likely do so again here.

Their opponents are in their best moment. They cut loose against a surprisingly game Equatorial Guinea in the quarter-final, playing with greater cohesion than previously seen, scoring thrice and welcoming winger Ismaila Sarr back into the fold. The Watford man scored during his cameo and is a real prospect to start here in place of the slightly underwhelming Boulaye Dia.

Much of their attacking construction will be concentrated on the left, where Sadio Mane and Saliou Ciss displayed a strong understanding in the win over the National Thunder. This will provide a stern test for the flying Issa Kabore, who will have to decide when and to what extent to track the Liverpool man in order not to expose that flank.

It might almost be worth Burkina Faso altering their pressing structure a little bit to protect that zone, with whoever plays on the right of their attack (likely Bertrand Traore, but Hassana Bande is also in the mix) covering Idrissa Gueye to allow Adama Guira to engage Mane in that left half-space he wants to drop into.

The key going forward for Burkina Faso will be avoiding passivity in midfield and looking for pace in the channels. Kalidou Koulibaly and Abdou Diallo are no slouches, but trying to play into feet is even less likely to bear fruit considering the presence of Nampalys Mendy as a screen in front of the Senegal defence.

Bouna Sarr is not the strongest defensively, and so exploiting the Teranga Lions’ right-back zone could bear fruit, especially as their wingers do not really track the full-back all the way. In that sense, Steeve Yago could play a key role on Wednesday evening.

Egypt were able to bridge the gap on Morocco by making their quarter-final almost a non-event in terms of actual football, before leveraging their own superstar’s decisive moments in the final third.

Fair play to them, but coming away from that encounter, the sense was more of disappointment in the Atlas Lions, who really lacked the personality to impose their own game.

The host nation in the semis represents a quite different challenge though, even if only for the simple fact that they cannot hope to bully Cameroon. The absence of Ahmed Hegazy due to injury is another huge blow.

Cameroon’s play in possession has steadily improved, and against Gambia they were patient and deliberate, maintaining a good defensive structure to guard against breaks and recycling possession quickly to keep the tempo high and the pressure on.

They will need all of that patience and timing here against an Egypt side likely to sit deeper and play on the break.

The Indomitable Lions will probably keep the same 4-3-3 that they used in the Quarter-finals, but with Andre Zambo Anguissa pushing onto Mohamed Elneny at the base of the Cameroon midfield when out of possession. Both Martin Hongla and Samuel Oum Gouet will need to play disciplined roles and avoid getting dragged out, as this is a ploy from which Egypt had some success against Morocco.

In possession, their build-up play has been typically strong all tournament, and they should be able to impose themselves in the centre of the pitch in the way that Morocco rather disappointingly failed to. The effect of this will be to force Carlos Queiroz’s side back.

The key player for Cameroon here will be Moumi Ngamaleu, who has an interesting role in the Cameroon set-up that allows him to pop up on either flank in order to get on the ball, overload and then make diagonal runs into the centre.

He covers a lot of ground, much more than he does in the 4-2-3-1 when Eric Choupo Moting starts, but considering Nouhou Tolo is unlikely to advance much on account of minding Mohamed Salah, the Young Boys forward will most likely spend much of his time on the left.

Combining with and providing an overlap to Karl Toko-Ekambi could prove decisive on Thursday night.

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