Champions Algeria face crunch clash against Ivory Coast with Afcon hopes in balance

Mahrez and Co battling to avoid becoming latest giant to tumble in Cameroon

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The 33rd Africa Cup of Nations is no respecter of fame. It took barely four minutes for the Comoros, island nation of fewer than 900,000 inhabitants, to assess Ghana’s many garlands — four Afcons, semi-finalists in six of the last seven editions — promptly take a 1-0 lead and establish their platform for a famous, historic victory on Tuesday night. Ghana, defeated 3-2, are out, and Comoros have a fabulous souvenir for their first-ever trip to the showpiece.

Another giant may tumble on Thursday with a crash that would resonate even louder. Algeria came to Cameroon with a carriage of 35 matches unbeaten, as holders and with the tag of favourites. They are spearheaded by the leading scorer, this season, at the most formidable team in club football, Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City.

Yet Algeria are goalless so far in Cameroon, that unblemished run has been derailed and should they fail to beat Ivory Coast, they will be going home at the group stage, the first hurdle of their title defence.

Some points of comparison: Ghana, ranked eighth best national team in Africa, were bundled out by islanders ranked 80 places below them in the Fifa hierarchy. Algeria have left their possible salvation to their hardest group fixture, at least on paper. Ivory Coast are, like Algeria, in the top 10 on the African rankings, and are spearheaded by the leading scorer in this season’s European Champions League, Ajax’s Sebastien Haller.

The predicament Algeria are in has come about because of two limp encounters with punch-above-their weight underdogs: The goalless draw against Sierra Leone (Fifa ranking: 108) and the shock 1-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea (114). “You can call it bad luck, with all the good chances we have created,” insisted Djamel Belmadi the manager and guide of the 2019 African champions, “but that can happen in football. You can absolutely dominate without coming away with goals or points.”

To do so twice means Algeria are in the last-chance saloon, and Belmadi, the former national captain hailed by compatriots for delivering, two and half years ago, the first country’s Afcon title since 1990, has been heavily criticised at home. “Paralysed,” the newspaper Le Soir d’Algerie called the response to their falling behind against Equatorial Guinea. “The team didn’t learn from the lessons given them by Sierra Leone. They need to reinvent themselves. To judge by the lowered heads of the players after the final whistle [against Equatorial Guinea], that may be hard.”

Belmadi disagrees. “The players came here very determined,” he said, acknowledging “they were hurting and frustrated”.

His address to the dressing-room ahead of the D-Day against Ivory Coast — who have four points, so need a positive result to guarantee their progress — was pitched at a proven ability to rise above setback. “I told the players that what makes me saddest is that their efforts have not been rewarded. I also reminded them of where we were back in 2018.”

When Belmadi took over as coach that year, Algeria were ranked 71st in the world. They had been bundled out of the previous Afcon — a 16-nation event then — at the group phase. “We were ranked 14th in Africa,” Belmadi recalls. Four years on, he put to Mahrez and his colleagues a simple question: “‘What is more difficult? To get ourselves up from where we were in 2018? Or bounce back from this situation, with all those three years of work, three years of good results, three years carrying a title, behind us?’”

Mahrez, speaking on Wednesday, diagnosed a tension when Algeria glimpse chances in the opposition penalty area, and his own form in Cameroon has been a barometer for the nation he captains. He had scored in each of his last five City matches before setting off for the Afcon. “We’ve not been effective,” he said. “We need to be more spontaneous in our finishing and final pass.”

There are concerns that the playing surface in Douala, venue for Thursday’s fixture may inhibit that spontaneity. The Ivorians cite the turf cutting up, and goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare losing his footing, for the late equaliser that cost them points in the 2-2 draw with Sierra Leone at the Japoma Stadium. Organisers turned down a late request to switch the game on Thursday game to another stadium.

“This is Africa, with its own football and its own special conditions,” shrugged Mahrez, a footballer who, at his best, glides along any surface as if he were an expert speed-skater on an Olympic ice-rink. His country needs that version of Mahrez this evening.

Updated: January 20, 2022, 5:57 AM