For a tournament with such highs and lows, one couldn’t possibly have imagined that Algeria would crash out of the competition so early. The defending champions had been widely touted as tournament favorites and on paper, only a few teams could rival the squad depth that the Desert Foxes had. I mean, it’s not every day that a national team coach is endowed with talents such as Youssef Belaili, Yacine Brahimi, Ismael Bennacer, Youcef Atal, Said Benrahma and to add the cherry on top, Riyad Mahrez.
Algeria’s run up to the 2022 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations had been so smooth that belief was rife that it would take a lot of effort to stop them from making it back to back triumphs. Plus, the fact that their main competitors and fellow favorites had lost key players on the eve of the tournament went a long way in boosting this belief. Senegal had Kreplin Diatta and Ismailla Sarr ruled out, Nigeria would have to make do without Victor Osimhen and the in-form Emmanuel Denis while managerial differences meant that Morocco would head into the month-long fiesta without Hakim Ziyech.
So, just what went wrong for the Desert Foxes? Overconfidence perhaps?
Fifa Arab Cup
The Djamel Belmadi charges were on a run of 34 unbeaten matches and had Italy’s record of 37 matches firmly in their sights. They swept aside a group consisting of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia to qualify for the tournament, scoring 19 goals and conceding six in the process. They also made light work (save for the games against Burkina Faso) in the race to qualify for this year’s World Cup in Qatar. And just last month, they beat Tunisia in the final of the FIFA Arab cup, capping off a wonderful run in Qatar. The core and majority of that team was the same team that had been selected to do duty and retain Africa’s largest football prize. And with the additions of West Ham winger Said Benrahma who so far, has nine Premier League goal involvements, their red-hot captain Riyad Mahrez and AC Milan’s midfield sensation, Ismael Bennacer Algeria looked completely unplayable.
Their opening game against Sierra Leone was subpar for the defending champions. But depending on whose side you are on, you’d be forgiven to credit the heroics of the Sierra Leone’s goalkeeper, Mohammed Kamara, rather than heap blame on Algeria, who looked out of sorts and spurned easy chances. Points were shared and oh boy, the scenes at the post match conference as Kamara was awarded the man of the match was why we watch and love this beautiful game!
The same profligacy was at play against Equatorial Guinea only that this time, Esteban Obiang struck a beauty to hand Algeria a shocking loss and leave their title hopes in serious jeopardy. Need I say that chasing Italy’s record had also gone up in flames? Their die was cast, either beat Ivory Coast on the final match day or pack your bags and be another champion to exit at group stage. Ivory Coast on their end had virtually guaranteed progression to the next stage but bragging rights, revenge and topping the group was at play. Two star-studded teams, one in dire need of a victory and the other, well, looking for revenge having exited at the hands of Algeria in 2019. Patrice Beaumelle, who was the assistant to Herve Renard in Ivory Coast’s 2015 triumph, put out a squad that completely dominated the Desert Foxes scoring three well executed goals in the process. And just when Algerians thought they might have a faint chance at a dramatic comeback, their captain, the same one who scored a ridiculous free kick in the semi finals of 2019, crashed his penalty kick on the post. So long, Algeria.
One can argue that this might be the worst Algerian side that we’ve seen in recent years. Stats say otherwise though. One Yousef Belaili will particularly feel hard done given the amount of big chances he created but weren’t converted. Algeria has the largest negative difference between goals scored and the expected goals. They only managed to score one goal while their expected goals(xG) was 5.3.
Djamel Belmadi has two months to figure out what went wrong and ensure that they qualify for the FIFA World Cup. They will face either Egypt, Cameroon, DR Congo, Ghana or Mali in a two-legged tie for a chance to represent Africa come end year in Qatar. And with basically no international breaks between now and that time, Belmadi doesn’t have the luxury to make some wholesome changes to the squad he has. The question of the strength of the squad will remain a non-issue, no one is yet to announce any imminent retirement from the international stage and like they say, class is permanent. And if it makes any Algerian fan out there feel any better, the Desert Foxes had a similarly shambolic campaign at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013 but still managed to qualify for the World Cup in 2014 in Brazil.
As Riyad Mahrez takes his place back at the Manchester City squad, maybe as early as this Saturday when they travel to play Southampton, he will rue that missed penalty and his side’s performance in general but at the same time, plot for an even bigger comeback in March. But for now, the damage is already done. Come February 6th, Africa will have a new champion.