Africa’s two best players will square off in Sunday’s final but, before this tournament’s marketing team gets too excited about a clash between Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, it would be best to expect a slow burner. Egypt revel in those, and showed it again here. They survived a series of first-half scares against Cameroon, who were enthusiastic but blunt, and then stretched proceedings to their elastic limit. Once penalties loomed there was a sense everyone bar the noisy 900 fans who had flown from Cairo might as well head home: Egypt simply do not lose them and, for the sixth shootout running, showed cool heads while others wilted.
Salah was not even required to step up for the deciding kick, as he had in the round of 16 against Ivory Coast, because Cameroon had already missed three. A straight run-up by Harold Moukoudi and a short one from James Léa Siliki both boded ill, and so it proved when Mohamed Abou Gabal saved two tame efforts. The final penalty was lifted wide by Clinton N’Jie; Egypt had hung in there and profited from their opponents’ yips, exacting some revenge for their defeat in the 2017 Cup of Nations final.
If they are to beat Senegal in open play they will need to involve Salah, who was offered thin gruel in a too-often unpleasant team, more frequently. His only chance came early in the second half and was handed to him by Martin Hongla, whose short back pass sent him up against André Onana. The home keeper had raced out of his area and, as Salah tried to go round him, successfully stuck out a foot to intercept. Beyond that Salah was restricted to two wayward shots from range; the fact Egypt care little for keeping the ball in play for significant periods does not help anyone advertise their talent, save that for getting things done by the niggliest means.
As their staff poured on to the pitch in celebration, Carlos Queiroz somehow managed to find his way down from the stands. He had been sent there for exercising the patience of the referee, Bakary Gassama, once too often towards the end of normal time; Egypt’s manager is just one component of a bench that has made disgraceful behaviour a routine all tournament but the fact he will not be allowed to stalk the technical area in the final may be viewed internally as an acceptable cost.
Cameroon, aggressive in the press and lively down the flanks, should have extracted a higher one. Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui headed Karl Toko Ekambi’s corner against the angle of the post and bar in the 18th minute and, moments later, kicked against his standing foot when unmarked. Ekambi miscued from a fine position after the half-hour and it did not feel bold to predict they would regret those moments. They forced the tempo but lacked craft, while their talisman Vincent Aboubakar was subdued. Samuel Gouet shot fractionally wide during a strong second-half spell but, from there, the die was cast.
It meant a quiet end to Stade Olembé’s first game since the crush that tragically killed eight fans last Monday. Extra measures to avoid a repeat appeared to work: security personnel managed crowd control to the most minute detail, even upbraiding anyone deemed to be walking to the game too quickly, and this time the gates required for safe passage inside were all kept open.
But they were undoubtedly helped by the fact many had chosen to stay away, the attendance of 24,371 occupying well under half of the capacity. Appetite for a return to the scene was muted and the empty seats provided a visually glum monument to what had passed.
It was hardly the kind of carnival the Confederation of African Football might have envisaged a fortnight ago. Now they can at least anticipate a meeting of Salah and Mané that ought to get mouths watering; the hope must be that one or the other can rise above the endless scrap and scuffle.