17, August 2021
Record-setters Algeria, led by Manchester city winger Riyad Mahrez, will be the team to avoid when the draw for a 2021 Africa Cup of Nations seriously disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic is made in the Cameroon capital of Yaoundé on Tuesday evening.
Defending champions Algeria set an African record for an unbeaten run by a senior national team in June when they won a friendly match in Tunisia to reach 27 matches without a loss.
That victory away at North African neighbour Tunisia eclipsed the record set by a Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré-inspired Ivory Coast side in February 2013.
Since losing a Cup of Nations qualifier in Benin 34 months ago, Algeria have won 20 competitive and friendly matches, drawn seven, scored 58 goals and conceded 17.
That sharp form makes the Desert Foxes early favourites to retain the Cup of Nations next February in Cameroon and conquer Africa for a third time.
Hosting Cup of Nations ‘irreversible achievement’ for Cameroon
They are among 24 qualifiers who will be split into six groups with the winners and runners-up in each plus the best four third-placed teams advancing to the knockout phase.
Algeria won the premier African national team competition for the first time in 1990 when they hosted an event then composed of eight teams and edged Nigeria 1-0 in the title decider.
A goal from Baghdad Bounedjah with less than two minutes on the clock in Cairo enabled Algeria to triumph again two years ago, this time over Liverpool winger Sadio Mané’s Senegal.
Algeria will be among the six top seeds for the Yaoundé draw and however bold other coaches’ public declarations may be before the event, privately they will be happy to dodge Mahrez and his teammates.
As one national coach, who requested anonymity, told AFP: “We say we do not fear any rivals, but desperately want to play potentially weak teams for as long as possible in any tournament.”
Premier Leaguer Mahrez is the star attraction in a squad composed of footballers, many born abroad to Algerian parents, who perform for European and Middle East clubs.
Full-back Aïssa Mandi, a long-time regular, recently swapped La Liga clubs, moving from Real Betis to Villarreal, and missed a penalty in the UEFA Super Cup shootout loss to Chelsea.
Belmadi ‘a national treasure’
Mandi is set to play in the upcoming Champions League group stage, as will other Algerians, including Mahrez and AC Milan midfielder Ismaël Bennacer.
Captain Mahrez says much of the praise for the 27-match unbeaten run and the 2019 Cup of Nations triumph must go to coach Djamel Belmadi, now 45 and a one-time Manchester City midfielder.
“He is a national treasure. You cannot exaggerate his importance to the team. The work of Djamel is deeply respected by all Algerians,” says the 2016 African Footballer of the Year.
It bears noting however that favourites have not succeeded in the Cup of Nations since 2010, when Egypt became the first country to win the competition three times in a row.
Zambia were shock winners in 2012. Nigeria exceeded expectations by finishing first in 2013 (when the tournament switched to odd-numbered years). And after many failures when favoured, it came as a surprise when the Ivory Coast finally triumphed in 2015.
Cameroon mocked the form book by succeeding in 2017. Finally, two years ago, hosts Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia were all considered stronger contenders to bring the cup to North Africa than the ultimately victorious Algeria.
Some coaches will be under extreme pressure in Cameroon to go far, notably Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic with Morocco and German Gernot Rohr with Nigeria.
A condition of the Halilhodzic contract is that he must reach the semi-finals at least while Nigerian football bosses have told Rohr to win the competition.
Besides Algeria, the other first seeds and strong title contenders are Cameroon, Senegal, Tunisia, Nigeria and Morocco.
Record seven-time champions Egypt, Ghana and Ivory Coast are other possible winners and those looking for a long-shot could consider Mali, who were runners-up to Congo when Cameroon last hosted the tournament 49 years ago.
Cameroon were selected to stage the 2019 tournament, but fell behind with stadia and other preparations and Egypt had to take over at short notice.
Given a second chance, the central African nation have had to postpone the tournament twice due to wet weather concerns and the Covid-19 pandemic and even the draw, originally set for June, was delayed by the pandemic.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)