Sunday, 30 May 2010

32 For 2010: Algeria

The Algerian national team are suffering from something of an identity crisis these days. On the one hand you have the battling, resolute team that overcame bitter rivals Egypt in a fiery play-off to reach this year’s World Cup Finals, and on the other you have the weak, disorientated team that were thrashed 4-0 by Egypt in the Nations Cup semi finals this year, just days after losing 3-0 to Malawi in the previous round.

Yet Algeria are battlers at heart and they’ll be fighting tooth and nail to go as far as possible in their first World Cup for 24 years. One familiar face from that previous finals appearance in 1986 is head coach Rabah Saadane. The 61-year-old was in charge of the team back then during a disappointing campaign and was a deputy to Mahieddine Khalef in the 1982 World Cup.

SInce those heady days of the 1980’s, Algeria have struggled not only to retain their place among the world’s elite but also on their own continent. Since winning their only African Cup of Nations to date in 1990 (on home soil), Algeria have failed to make any great impact on the African championships and subsequently slid further and further down the world’s pecking order. Currently up to 31st in the FIFA World Rankings on the back of their World Cup qualification, they were as low as 103rd just two years ago.

Algeria’s recent rise to prominence has come about through an improved squad that has a strong Europe-based contingent. Several names will be familiar to British football fans in particular, including Portsmouth’s Nadir Belhadj and Hassan Yebda along with the Rangers defender Madjid Bougherra. Among those plying their trade on the continent, the Wolfsburg defender Karim Ziani and Rafik Saifi of Istres are two to watch out for.

Bougherra has been one of many injury concerns for Saadane, although the French-born centre back claims to be fit again after several months out of the game with a calf strain. Despite assuring the press that he’ll be ready for the World Cup when it arrives, he didn’t figure in Algeria’s 3-0 friendly defeat to the Republic of Ireland this week and will be sorely missed in the finals if he remains absent from the team.

All in all, the Desert Foxes will go into battle next month somewhat unsure of their capabilities against rather tricky opposition. Undoubtedly the game upon which their prospects will rise or fall will be their first against Slovenia in Polokwane, a match they know will give them their best chance of picking up three points. A good start there will give them the momentum they’ll need to stand up to Fabio Capello’s England side prior to their last game in Group C against the USA where a draw will be deemed a reasonable outcome.

Anything on a par with Algeria’s 1982 campaign where they beat West Germany 2-1 and Chile 3-2 will be deemed an amazing success, but in realistic terms it seems unlikely this time. Then again, if anyone knows how to make it happen again it’s Rabah Saadane and in this, his fifth spell in charge of the team, he’ll undoubtedly be as determined as ever.

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