Mohamed Salah-captained Egypt face a “third final before the final” this week when they confront hosts Cameroon in an Africa Cup of Nations semi-final in Yaounde.
“We overcame the Ivory Coast and Morocco in what amounted to finals before the final and now we face another one against Cameroon,” said Mozambique-born Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz.
While Liverpool star Salah and his Pharaoh teammates have been battling fellow top-10 ranked teams in the knockout stages of the marquee African tournament, Cameroon had a gentler passage.
They defeated the Comoros, who had to use an outfield player between the posts after Covid-19 and injury sidelined their three goalkeepers, then Gambia, the lowest ranked of the 24 teams at the finals.
The clash on Thursday comes a day after Senegal, whose star-packed side includes another Liverpool star in Sadio Mane, face Burkina Faso in the first semi-final, also in Yaounde.
It will be an emotional occasion for the Burkinabe, whose coach Kamou Malo says they will be “playing for our people who are being tested by current events”, referring to a recent military coup.
Here, AFP Sport looks ahead to the last-four clashes with Senegal favored to qualify for a second successive final, while Cameroon and Egypt meet in a repeat of the 2017 title decider.
Cameroon v Egypt
Cameroon sharpshooters Vincent Aboubakar (six) and Karl Toko-Ekambi (five) are the leading scorers in this Cup of Nations, having bagged between them all 11 goals scored by the Indomitable Lions.
Egypt have particularly painful memories of Aboubakar, whose late goal gave Cameroon a come-from-behind 2-1 triumph in the 2017 final in Libreville.
The Saudi Arabia-based goalmouth predator drew a blank against Gambia, but was denied a hat-trick by two close shaves and a header striking the chest of Gambian goalkeeper Baboucarr Gaye.
Lyon forward Toko-Ekambi, one of many Cup of Nations stars with African roots born in Europe, came to the rescue by netting twice in seven minutes.
Now they face the Ahmed Hegazy-marshalled defense of record seven-time champions Egypt, a country renowned for rearguard strength both at national team and club levels.
A major concern for Egypt, though, is that they may have to field third-choice goalkeeper Mohamed Sobhy as Mohamed Elshenawy and Mohamed Abougabal had to retire injured against the Ivorians and Moroccans.
At the other end of the pitch, there is the menace posed by two-time African Footballer of the Year Salah, who debuted for his country in 2011, a year after they last conquered Africa by beating Ghana.
After a slow start in Cameroon, Salah led by example against Morocco, equalizing and then setting up the extra-time winner for fellow Premier League forward Mahmoud Trezeguet.
Burkina Faso v Senegal
Senegal share with west African neighbors Mali the unwanted distinction of never having lifted the Cup of Nations — the symbol of national team supremacy in the continent.
The Teranga Lions have come agonizingly close twice, losing on penalties to Cameroon in Bamako 20 years ago and narrowly to Algeria in Cairo in 2019.
Reigning African Footballer of the Year Mane says he would happily exchange “all the medals he has won (in England and Europe) for a Cup of Nations gold gong”.
He may never have a better chance of realizing his dream as Senegal find themselves one victory away from the final while rarely moving into overdrive.
They topped a group including modest opponents Guinea, Malawi and Zimbabwe while winning only once and scoring only once through a Mane penalty.
Only when last-16 rivals Cape Verde were reduced to nine men, did Senegal score, and they then punished sloppy Equatorial Guinea defending to win 3-1 with Mane, surprisingly, not among the scorers.
While much attention has been on Salah, Mane and Aboubakar, Burkina Faso have progressed almost unnoticed until impressively eliminating Tunisia, who defeated Nigeria in the previous round.
The Stallions could afford to keep Aston Villa forward Bertrand Traore on the bench throughout the quarter-final in Garoua, but teenage match-winner Dango Ouedraogo misses out due to suspension.