Algeria: To be or not to be?
In contrast to some of Africa’s other World Cup representatives, Algeria have largely resisted the temptation to alter the side they took to Brazil, despite a change of manager.
Only two players present in the 23-man World Cup squad (Mehdi Mostefa and Hassan Yebda) haven’t been called-up since, while only six players who didn’t travel to South America played during the qualifying phase. Three of these (Baghdad Bounedjah, Mehdi Zeffane and Azzedine Doukha) appeared only once Algeria had secured their spot at the Cup of Nations.
Therefore, the team that contest the Afcon should be fairly familiar to anyone who witnessed the Fennecs’ incalescent performances this summer.
In goal, Rais M’Bohli will look to assert himself as Africa’s finest goalkeeper. The Philadelphia Union man is confirmed as the side’s Number One, even if Mohamed Zemmamouche and Doukha played a match each during qualification.
Madjid Bougherra is no longer a first-teamer, although the veteran, who has announced he will retire from international football after the tournament, could still play an important role. The ex-Rangers man might take inspiration from Joseph Yobo, who played a vital part in Nigeria’s triumph in 2013, entering late on in contests to add experience and stability and help the side close-out victories.
The centre-back pairing will be Carl Medjani and skipper Rafik Halliche, with the former also able to step forward into the midfield. Essaid Belkalem would have provided competition, but has been ruled out of the tournament with a hamstring injury.
Faouzi Ghoulam, of Napoli, will be a forward-thinking presence at left-back, although likely substitute Djamal Mesbah can also fill the role, as he did on occasion in Brazil. At right-back, Aissa Mandi has started five of Christian Gourcuff’s six matches in charge and looks to have firmly seen-off the challenge of Mostefa.
Lyon youngster Zeffane provides cover across the backline.
With the back four established, the coach will likely opt for a 4-5-1 formation, which can easily become a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 thanks to nuanced switches.
I like to think of it as a 4-2-3-1, with the three behind the striker all keen to push forward beyond the sitting midfielders and have an influence in the final third.
The two sitting players will likely be Nabil Bentaleb, of Tottenham Hotspur, who brings tidy footwork, decent energy and an occasional eye for a terrific through-ball. Alongside him, Mehdi Lacen will be a more defensive foil, although he too is capable of playing a key pass.
Sapher Taider, who offers more forward movement than either man, is an option, although his stock fell a little during the World Cup defeat to Belgium. Mehdi Abeid would have been another exciting option, but misses out through injury. Ahmed Kashi, another uncapped, French-born midfielder, has replaced him in the 23, pipping Crystal Palace man Adlene Guedioura.
Sofiane Feghouli will start on the right of midfield, with Yacine Brahimi in the hole and Riyad Mahrez on the left flank, providing width and direct running. Few (if any) African nations can boast of such an accomplished trio of attacking midfielders and each is capable of being a match-winner. The first two, in particular, are capable of being the tournament’s MVP.
I would love to see Ryan Boudebouz deliver on his undoubted promise in Equatorial Guinea, although here is a player whose stagnation is threatening to overtake a career that (at times) appeared destined to reach the top of the spot. The SC Bastia playmaker cut a frustrated figure at the last Cup of Nations; this time, he’d be lucky to even make the plane having only been named as a reserve option.
Boudebouz was beaten for a spot in the 23 by Foued Kadir, a surprise choice who hasn’t featured for the national side since the pre-World Cup friendly with Slovenia.
Ahead of them, Islam Slimani leads the line, although El Arbi Hillel Soudani is a more powerful, bustling option in reserve. The latter can also replace Mahrez on the left, allowing Gourcuff to transition easily to playing two up top.
Soudani enjoys an occasionally devastating cross-field relationship with Feghouli, although he was unable to trouble either Belgium or Germany at the World Cup.
Abdelmoumene Djabou is a delightful ‘fantasy’ option from the bench. There is a sense that the Club Africain forward is still waiting to truly be unleashed with the national side. He was given two starts in Brazil, as Vahid Halilhodzic gave his fancy footwork a chance to shine, but hasn’t started a match since the final group-game contest against Russia.
Ishak Belfodil, whilom of Internazionale, was once considered the bright hope of Algerian football, although there is a sense that the team has moved on a little without the former France youth international. It remains to be see what role (if any) he will play at the Afcon, having not made the most of his chance to shine during the qualifiers.