Egypt in seventh heaven as they conquer Africa again

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With an 84th-minute winner, Mohamed Nagui confirmed this Egypt's side place not merely in the pantheon, but on its highest step. Since Hassan Shehata replaced Marco Tardelli as coach in 2004, they have not lost a Cup of Nations game, and last night claimed an unprecedented third straight title.

There were records broken or extended everywhere you looked. This was Egypt's seventh Cup of Nations success, three more than Ghana and Cameroon, their nearest challengers. Six of the side – Essam El Hadary, Hani Said, Wael Gomaa, Ahmed Fathi, Ahmed Hassan and Emad Meteeb – have played in all three finals, while Shehata equalled the Ghanaian CK Gyamfi's record of three titles as coach. “It’s not the greatest team of all time,” Shehata said, “but they’ve won three championships and we are the best in Africa.”

The most remarkable achievement of all, though, is that of Hassan, the playmaker and captain. This was his fourth Cup of Nations triumph: to put that in perspective, that is as many as any other nation and twice as many as Nigeria. He is an extraordinary player and a superb leader, but for all his insistence that he would like to play on "till I'm 100", the suspicion must be that, at 34, for him this will be the end.

As Egypt's veteran team manager Samir Adly acknowledged, this is a generation coming to the end of its cycle. "In February," Adly said, "we start again." It could be an experimental side that faces England in a friendly in March.

For Egypt, winning has become so frequent victories have developed their own traditions. At the final whistle, El Hadary, unusually suspect last night, climbed to adopt his familiar celebratory pose on the crossbar while Shehata was thrown into the air by delirious players; they even continued the habit of producing their least convincing performance in the final.

With the centre-back Mahmoud Fathalla suspended, Hossam Ghaly came into the side in midfield, with Fathi taking up his third different position of the tournament and slotting in on the right side of Egypt's back three. Presumably responding to Egypt's three-man back line, Ghana turned from their usual 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 with Agyemang Opoku shifting from his usual central support-striking role to a position on the left. Cameroon did something similar in the final two years ago, and the game ran a similar course, as Egypt were initially frustrated before finding a late winner.

Ghana, who given their unexpected passage to the final might perhaps have been expected to quail having got there, showed no nerves, and even seemed happier in their new shape.

They started better than their coach Milovan Rajevac could have dared dream, maintaining possession, working neat triangles, seeming almost surreally confident, as though the magnitude of the occasion hadn't quite filtered through. Egypt, for the first time since the opening 20 minutes against Nigeria, seemed a touch uncertain. Even Hassan seemed rattled, and it can only have been his reputation that saved him from a booking towards the end of the first half as he followed up an attempt to punch the ball over the line with a crude foul on Kwadwo Asamoah.

Possession is one thing, though, chances something else, and partly because of their occasional lack of directness, and partly because of the excellence of Said, Egypt's libero, Ghana struggled to create.

Asmaoah Gyan, the great resurrected hero of these finals, was left to lope around up front by himself, where he enjoyed a rugged battle with Wael Gomaa, his man-marker. The comparison with Emile Heskey is inevitable. Like the England striker, Gyan frustrates as much as he delights, and is held in higher esteem by coaches and team-mates than by fans. Two years ago, on home soil, a couple of misses in Ghana's opening game drew such derision that he almost quit the squad, reportedly being persuaded to stay only after the intervention of Michael Essien.

He's been excellent in this tournament, though, and was again yesterday, despite his almost constant isolation. Had his 75th-minute free-kick flashed in rather than just wide after an uncertain flap from El Hadary, it could all have been a very different story. There were tears at the end, but this young team, gifted, well-organised and remarkably mature, will surely enjoy success at some time in the future.

After a superb defensive performance in which the two centre-backs, Isaac Vorsah and David Addy, with all of 40 years between them, were magnificent, Ghana even seemed to be building pressure as the second half wore on. Gyan had a couple of half-chances, and Agyemang Opoku was a fraction from getting a toe to Samuel Inkoom's low cross.

Perhaps Ghana were over-encouraged and thought that they could press forward more in search of a winner. Perhaps they were simply tired. But for the first time space appeared between Ghana's defence and midfield. Nagui, such a threat from the bench, ran on, exchanged passes with Mohamed Zidan, and curled a precise finish into the corner to confirm that, with five goals, he was the tournament's top scorer.

The finale may have been a little unconvincing, but Egypt deserved their triumph. Over the tournament they were the best side, and played a pleasing style of football that brought 15 goals in six games.

There may have been suspicions that they had enjoyed home advantage rather too much when they won on Egyptian soil four years ago, but their achievements since have more than validated that success. They will not be at the World Cup, but this may be the greatest team Africa has ever produced.

Ghana (4-2-3-1): Kingson; Inkoom, Addy, Vorsah, Sarpei; Agyemang-Badu, Annan; D Ayew, Asamoah, Opoku (Addo, 89); Gyan (Adiyiah, 87)

Egypt (3-5-2): El Hadary; Fathy (Moatasem 90), H Said, Gomaa; El Mohamady, A Hassan, Ghaly, Hosny, Moawad (Abdelshafi, 57); Zidan, Meteeb (Nagui, 70).

(1/2/2010 17:23)
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