By Maher Mezahi
An unfamiliar cloud of self-doubt hangs over the Algerian national team. It began with poor results in friendly matches under former manager Christian Gourcuff. Losses to Qatar and Guinea became fodder for criticism as supporters and journalists found fault with a manager they had never taken to.
Sensing that he was swimming upstream, Gourcuff threatened to leave on several occasions before finally resigning despite having swiftly qualified for AFCON 2017. Thus the Algerian Football Federation (AFF) had ample time to find a suitable successor, but a casting gaffe did away with the time Gourcuff afforded his former bosses when the president of the AFF Mohamed Raouraoua brought in Milovan Rajevac.
The Serbian caretaker is best known for taking Ghana to a Luis-Suarez-handball away from the World Cup semi-finals. That would have been a first for an African nation, but by the time Rajevac came to Algiers he had been unemployed for five years. ‘Milo’ was also incapable of speaking French or Arabic and a player mutiny eventually forced him out after Algeria drew its first match of 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Rajevac’s forced resignation was not received well among supporters as many spoke of player power from those who come to Algeria with inflated egos. That kind of discourse led Sofiane Feghouli (who was accused of leading the revolt against Rajevac) to make several posts re-affirming his commitment to the national team. As a result, supporters have become a little disillusioned with the once supremely popular national team.
No one is exactly sure how Algeria will line-up in Gabon. In his inaugural press conference Georges Leekens claimed that the system his side play would be of little importance. What is for certain is that Leekens wants to attack and defend in a bloc. The 67-year-old manager is known to be pragmatic and line up with five defenders so it would not be a surprise if that is a scheme that is tried in Gabon. In his first match versus Nigeria Leekens played a narrow 4-3-2-1; however, inexcusable individual errors led to a two-goal deficit that the visitors could not overcome.
Attacking artillery – Algeria boasts obvious talent in the attacking third of the pitch. Les Fennecs have two of the last three BBC African Footballer of the Year winners in attacking midfield and the nation’s best ever target-man spearheading the attack. Leekens’ men are also very experienced with the majority having already competed in continental and global tournaments.
The pressure & the right back position – The negative atmosphere encompassing the Algerian national team amongst media and supporters is a big weakness heading to Gabon. It will inevitably amplify the already knee-buckling pressure on Les Fennecs. On the pitch, questions are still being asked of Algeria’s defence. It seems a decade since Algeria last fielded a veritable fullback on the right side of the pitch and the centre-halves seem too slow to deal with pace in behind.
Riyad Mahrez – PFA Player of the Year, BBC African Footballer of the Year and Premier League champion – the last year and a half has been transforming for Mahrez. The Sarcelles native has grown into Algeria’s best and most important player. If his team are to have any chance of adding a second gold star to the Federation’s crest, the lithe Leicester winger will have to be on top of his game.
The Hipster’s Choice
Nabil Bentaleb – Algeria’s defensive frailties seems to be due to a lack of protection in midfield. Nabil Bentaleb and Saphir Taider were both criticised for not properly timing their forays in attack, leaving space in front of the back four. This season, Bentaleb has been playing the best football of his career at Schalke, espousing a true box-to-box role. In Gabon, he must try to retain some of the goalscoring form he has found in Germany and couple it with defensive discipline.
Georges Leekens – In his second spell with Algeria, the Belgian coach, who is nicknamed ‘Mac the Knife’, was in charge of Les Fennecs in a previous spell in 2003. He returned thirteen years later under drastically different conditions, inheriting an immensely talented squad to work with. Expect Leekens to play pragmatic, gritty football.
By The Numbers (courtesy of We Global Football)
- Algeria is always a tough nut to crack, having only suffered 3 losses in their 14 matches since AFCON 2015.
- Algeria hasn’t had much difficulty tickling the old onion bag in recent matches. They have scored 42 goals in their last 13 games, good for 3.23 per match.
- Easy does it, though. The Fennecs’ 2016 strength of schedule left plenty to be desired. Average opponent WGF rank was 123 and they failed to defeat anyone in the top 140.
- Algeria is favoured to advance ahead of Tunisia by the slimmest of margins – 2%, projecting to finish 0.18 points higher.
- Due to a tough group, Algeria has about a 1 in 16 chance of lifting the trophy, which is good enough for 7th best out of the 16.
Semi-final – If Algeria can snap out of their funk they have all the tools to progress to the knockout stages. Expect them to make the final four or exit in the group stages.