Algeria and Côte d’Ivoire have become accustomed to meeting in the final phase of the Africa Cup of Nations.
The last confrontation, on 11 July 2019 in Suez, had turned to the advantage of the Fennecs, during the quarter-final of the Egyptian edition (1-1, 4-3 on penalties), which will win a few days later their second continental trophy after that obtained in Algiers in 1990.
But history recalls that the Algerians had fallen from grace in 1992 in Senegal when they came to defend their title. Rabah Madjer’s teammates lost (0-3) to the Elephants, before being eliminated following a 1-1 draw with Congo.
Kourichi: “Algeria thought it would be easier”
On Thursday in Douala, on what remains of the Japoma Stadium, the North Africans, held in check by Sierra Leone (0-0) and then beaten by Equatorial Guinea (0-1) have no alternative but to win against Ivorians certainly better off than them (four points), but who are not totally assured of playing in the last 16.
The Algerians, especially, were not expecting such a scenario, as their national team was on a 34-match unbeaten streak before the start of the competition. “I’m surprised, of course, that Algeria only has one point after two games. But they are the team to beat since they won the title in 2019, and they have met some very motivated opponents. Yes, it is hot in Cameroon, there is a high level of humidity, the pitch in Douala is not of very good quality, but these are not the only reasons to explain these first two results,” said Nordine Kourichi, former international (30 caps) then-assistant coach (2011-2014).
The former Fennecs defender suggests the overconfidence of a team accustomed to not losing since October 2018. “They probably thought it would be easier. And after two games, they haven’t scored a single goal. Mentally, physically, you have to be ready for an African Cup of Nations, and there was probably a certain lack of motivation.”
The pressure surrounding the African champions, who were touted as favourites before the tournament kicked off, is not going away, while the risks of an early elimination are real. Some of the team’s leaders, including captain Ryad Mahrez, have not been their usual influential selves, and success against the Ivorians will inevitably require them to return to their best.
“I don’t think Djamel Belmadi will make many changes, maybe one or two, not more. The players are aware of the situation, the team’s leaders must take things in hand. The coach will have to find the words, ask his players to do much more,” said Lakhdar Belloumi, a 100-time Algerian international and considered one of the best players in the history of African football.
Apprehension of Ivorians
Belmadi has never had to manage such a perilous situation since his 2018 appointment, and the Fennecs coach will play a decisive role. “He must keep his principles, not change his 4-3-3 system. The coach will undoubtedly remind his players that the team has not lost its qualities overnight just because it missed its first two matches.”
“Belmadi’s dressing room speech will be very important, he will be able to motivate his players… but they are the ones who are on the pitch,” said Kourichi.
From Abidjan, the former Ivorian international and player of ASEC and Africa Sports Yao Amani, now coach of AFAD (Division 1) seriously considers a redemption scenario for Algeria. “In the first two games, they dominated but were not successful. They are a big team, with strong individualities, used to pressure and I think we should expect the Algerians to wake up. The Ivory Coast, assured of qualifying with a draw, could also reach the last 16 even if they lose.”
“Be careful not to be dismissing them, especially a team like Algeria, with players capable of turning a match on its head at any moment,” Amani continued. “I’m always wary of teams that start a tournament with difficulty and then grow in strength as the matches go on, like Côte d’Ivoire in 2015…”
That year, the Elephants started with two draws against Guinea (1-1) and Mali (1-1). A few weeks later, they became African champions…
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