The Good, the Survivor and the Failures
It has been an African Cup of Nations of mixed fortunes for the North African countries. Always tipped by experts to fight for the African Holy Grail & always under immense popular pressure to go the furthest possible, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco & Tunisia fared differently in what looks like a tale of three stories full of formidable twists & insane pressure.
Episode 1 : The Good
Algeria qualified yesterday for the African Cup of Nations semis at the end of an epic shootout against Ivory Coast which literally broke hearts & the internet. The road leading the Desert Foxes to this clash of giants against Ivory Coast was pretty much formidable on all fields but was missing this kind of emotional moment. Djamel Belmadi’s men started their AFCON in style after beating convincingly & comfortably a Kenyan team submerged by the formidable offensive power of El Khadra.
The same players had the spotlights turned on them four days laters as they had to lock horns with Senegal, in the first big game of the tournament and in a clash between eternal AFCON favourites. Algeria played a near perfect game against Terenga Lions in terms of defensive, collective work. A wonderful performance embodied by Espérance magician Youssef Belaili who scored the lone goal to give the 1990 champions a completely deserved win over Aliou Cissé’s men. The result and the victory in themselves weren’t a surprise, as Algeria have enough quality on paper to beat literally whoever they want, but the way how this success was acquired was unexpected. Algeria, known for their technical style, literally marched on & outmuscled a Senegalese team known for its physicality. A huge physical impact, a big spoon of teamwork & a pinch of silky players helped Algeria to turn lions into kittens under the scorching Cairo sun. A brutal performance which kept Aliou Cissé’s men silent, offensively speaking, like rarely seen recently. This win exposed an unknown face of this Algerian team: a team who can offer enough impact to silence one of the most physical sides in Africa.
The third game against an already eliminated Tanzania proved to be a walk in the park for El Khadra. Fielding a B squad, after the mammoth game against Senegal, Djamel Belmadi’s troops cruised to a comfortable 3-0 win over the tame Taifa Stars in a game which showed the depth of Algeria squad,
9 points, very solid performances, three clean sheets & a marquee win over Senegal, this was Algeria’s run in the Group C which ensured them to face one of the least mediocre third placed teams, Guinea.
Algeria didn’t show any problem to overcome a tusk-less Sily National & booked in style their quarter final spot. Opening the show through an eye-candy goal from Youssef Belaili after a neat movement with Al Sadd bomber Baghdad Bounedjah, Algeria added two goals through Man City wizard Riyad Mahrez & Adam Ounas from the bench to cut Guinea’s defense like a hot knife through butter, ensuring their qualification for quarters and lock horns with other Elephants,Ivory Coast.
Courtesy of their impressive & solid previous performances during the tournament, Algeria started their quarter in favourites’ boots against a far from impressive Ivory Coast. Although Algeria were surprised by ten very good minutes from Ivory Coast, the Desert Foxes managed to put their foot on the ball and broke down the Ivorian block at the 20th minute thanks to a goal which summed up what Algeria is all about during this AFCON. The tireless Al Sadd forward, Baghdad Bounedjah fought to press Mamadou Bagayoko who lost the ball which was picked by Ramy Bensebaini, who put a perfect cross to Sofian Feghouli who fired it past Sylvain Gbohouo. Les Fennecs entered into the lockers at halftime with a one-nil lead reflecting their technical superiority over a hapless Ivory Coast who threatened them only on the wings.
The second half started almost perfectly for Algeria as Baghdad Bounedjah, well served by a brilliant through ball was taken down by Ivory Coast custodian Sylvain Gbohouo and awarded a penalty. The Al Sadd star sent his penalty kick on the bar & certainly missed a chance to put the game to bed. Bounedjah again had a superb opportunity to score Algeria’s second but was denied this time by the TP Mazembe keeper. Ivory Coast got an equalizer out of the blue through some neat footwork from Jonathan Kodjia to take the game to extra time.
An extra time which was pretty flat due to what was at stake, bar a last minute freekick from Andy Delort & some scramble in the Algerian box before. Penalties were going to decide who would take the antepenultimate semi-final ticket. In a very emotional shootout, Wilfried “Daddy Cool” Bony was the first to not keep his cool and saw like in 2015 final his penalty saved. The tears on the Algeria bench, from the staff & players like Youssef Atal or Baghdad Bounedjah were set to become tears of joy as one of Algeria best performers, Youssef Belaili had a match winning penalty between his feet. But the post which stopped Belali’s shot decided otherwise. A lifeline was then given to Ivory Coast to take the shootout to sudden death but the experienced Geoffrey Serey Die shot on the same post which denied Belaili seconds earlier. Algeria were through & the tears of Baghdad Bounedjah, Youssef Atal or even Djamel Belmadi became finally tears of joy after one of the most emotional shootouts one could see in his life.
Algeria will play now on Sunday their first AFCON semi since 2010 and will face Nigeria after a long & tiring battle against Ivory Coast.Another clash of giants is now waiting for the Desert Warriors, against eternal giants Nigeria in a classic of African football. Algeria who showed real character after overcoming Ivory Coast will miss the service of flying fullback Youssef Atal, who broke his collarbone and is out for the rest of the tournament. Djamel Belmadi’s men who showed various faces will have now to overcome another stiff test if they want to qualify for the third AFCON final of their history.