Africa Cup of Nations

Algeria: What goes up, must come down

17:49 SAST 2022/01/18
Riyad Mahrez Algeria vs Equatorial Guinea Africa Cup of Nations 2021
The Fennecs have lost their undefeated streak, and now have a battle on to salvage their Nations Cup campaign

All good things come to an end, so they say, and clearly Algeria’s undefeated streak was never going to last forever.

Before Sunday’s shock defeat by Equatorial Guinea, the Fennecs last lost a match in October 2018 — a 1-0 reverse against Benin in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier — over the subsequent three and a bit years, they’ve established themselves as the top force in African soccer.

The Afcon title was won in summer 2019—a first continental triumph since 1990—and the Arab Cup was clinched late last year, with Algeria affirming their status as the team to beat at the Afcon.

What a difference a week can make.

Now, their undefeated streak is over, their title defence is in tatters, and they face a genuine battle in order to progress to the knockout stages of the Afcon.

When the dust settles on this torrid Nations Cup campaign, the true magnitude of their achievement in going over three years unbeaten can be realised.

If we discount their unbeaten run in the Arab Cup—which would have meant their undefeated streak was a world record—their run ends at 35 matches, tantalisingly close to Italy’s world record of 37 matches unbeaten between 2018 and 2021.

Algeria’s run is an African record by some distance—the next best is Ghana’s 24 games unbeaten between 1981 and 1983—and over recent years, they’ve eclipsed fine generations like Brazil and France of the mid-90s, Spain ’07-’09 and Argentina ’91-’93.

It’s a magnificent achievement, and one for which head coach Djamel Belmadi must take immense credit.

However, he will be aware that this Algeria side risk being seen as nearly men, or even underachievers, if they fail to add another Afcon title to the crown they won in 2019, and reach the 2022 World Cup in Qatar later this year.

It’s still in their own hands—they must beat Ivory Coast in Douala later this week to progress—but Belmadi has his work cut out to boost morale after to two massively disappointing results.

The opening game—a draw against Sierra Leone—could be blamed on the taxing climatic conditions of playing at 14h, or the turf at the Stade de Japoma, or an inspired goalkeeping display by Mohamed Nbalie Kamara.

Belmadi tried to point the finger at all three, and indeed, that game could well have been one of those ‘one in one hundred’ encounters whether the underdogs ride their luck, each man over-performs on one side and underperforms on the other, where the soccer gods smile on the minnows and an outstanding result is achieved.

The Algeria coach certainly believes so, outlining his view that, nine times out of ten, Algeria would have broken the deadlock against an inspired Sierra Leone team.

He tried the same explanation again following the Fennecs’ following the Equatorial Guinea defeat, but this time, the words rang a little hollow.

"There aren’t always rational reasons for everything, particularly in football,” Belmadi told GOAL. “We can dominate the match and then come out with zero points, zero goals, so we can not always explain the details of this defeat.

“There were 10 chances, none went in,” he continued. “There was a ball into the box — 95 percent chance we score — instead, there’a goal for them.

“It’s bad luck, but it’s football.”

The Fennes are now up against it ahead of their final group game against the Elephants.

The West Africans have four points, but their inability to bury Sierra Leone affected morale dramatically, while injury concerns about first choice Badra Ali Sangare—even in light of his error against the Leone Stars—threatens to further weaken their unconvincing defence.

There is undoubtedly a fragility about this Elephants team; and if Algeria can start strongly, then they can certainly put pressure on an Ivorian side that whose brittle characteristics are rarely far them the surface.

The Elephants match was meant to be the game that tested the undefeated streak—Algeria’s biggest challenge of the opening round—instead, they face a challenge to salvage their title defence.

There’s doubtless quality in this Algeria team, however, and they lead the possession stakes in the tournament so far (62.5 percent), as well as having averaged the most shots per game (16, tied with Nigeria), and registered the highest pass accuracy (85.8 percent).

Who knows, perhaps another extended undefeated streak can begin with Thursday’s showdown in Douala.