The only North African team to book a place at this summer’s tournament, Algeria’s qualifying campaign was characterised by a series of fiery encounters with bitter rivals, Egypt. Drawn together in Group C during the final round of CAF qualification, Algeria beat the Pharaohs 3-1 in Blida before suffering a disappointing 2-0 defeat in Cairo. However, the most dramatic tie between the two countries was yet to come as the teams were forced into a tie-breaking play-off after finishing level on all counts in the group. Played in the neutral venue of Sudan, Algeria ran out 1-0 victors in an extremely bad-tempered affair, Antar Yahia scoring the goal which sent his country to its first World Cup since 1986.
As demonstrated by the team’s run to the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, this is a mercurial side capable of both the good and the very bad. Rabah Saadane has, in the three years since beginning his fifth stint as Coach of the national team, attempted to instill a relatively complex 3-4-2-1 system, but one which, when executed correctly, gives his side organisation in defence and sees them present a multi-faceted threat when going forward.
Although adopting a three-man defence may seem risky, particularly against group opponents of the calibre of England and the USA, Saadane relies of a disciplined midfield quartet to break up opposition attacks whilst also tracking back to protect the back line. Central midfield players such as captain Yazid Mansouri and Hassan Yebda are particularly adept defensively and complement the more attack-orientated talents of Karim Matmour and – when played on the left wing – Portsmouth’s Nadir Belhadj.
Further up the field the team’s playmaker, the immensely gifted Karim Ziani of Wolfsburg, pulls the strings alongside the emerging talent of Lazio’s Mourad Meghni. The passing range of the two players and their ability to get into dangerous areas and release the lone striker – likely to be Abdelkader Ghezzal in South Africa – could cause problems to Algeria’s group opponents during the World Cup, pressing this creative hub being crucial when taking on the North Africans.
The Desert Foxes have the ingredients to challenge for second place in what could well prove to be a closely-fought Group C this summer but, if Saadane is unable to cleanse his side of the inconsistency and ill-discipline which it has a tendency to suffer from, their World Cup adventure could be over all too quickly.
Probable starting XI: Gaouaoui (ASO Chlef); Bougherra (Rangers), Halliche (Nacional Madeira), Yahia (Bochum); Matmour (Borussia Monchengladbach), Yebda (Portsmouth), Mansouri (Lorient), Belhadj (Portsmouth); Ziani (Wolfsburg), Meghni (Lazio); Ghezzal (Siena)
The Road to South Africa: 1st in CAF qualifying third round Group C – Winners of tie-break play-off
World Ranking: 31st