Determination and realism are perhaps the best words to sum up the mood in the
Benfica midfielder Hassan Yebda, who spent last season on the English south coast with Portsmouth, has rightly spoken of the importance of starting the campaign with victory over Slovenia on Sunday in Polokwane. Perhaps we are making our judgements too soon, but these two sides are considered the favourites to make an early exit from Group C and so the importance of an early three points cannot be understated for both nations. Victory over their European counterparts is perhaps the best chance of Coach Rabah Saadane’s men picking up points in South Africa. It may not seem fair to write off the Desert Foxes before they have kicked a ball in anger, but the reality is that this is a must win fixture, sentiments echoed by newly-appointed captain Antar Yahia.
Yahia, more used to the surroundings of Germany’s industrial north-west with VfL Bochum, will take the captain’s armband in the absence of usual skipper Yazid Mansouri, who Saadane has revealed will be dropped for the opening fixture due to a dip in form. The gap in central midfield will be filled by Yebda, partnering Mehdi Lacen. The new captain and the rest of the squad landed in Durban on Monday having played their last warm-up fixture against the United Arab Emirates last Saturday, the Desert Foxes securing victory in the match thanks to a second half penalty from VfL Wolfsburg’s Karim Ziani. A 1-0 scoreline over a relatively unknown football entity does not tell the whole story for Saadane’s men, perhaps suggesting why the squad have been united in their front of determination. Following on from their famous victory in the qualifying play-off against fierce rivals Egypt, Algeria endured an indifferent campaign in the African Cup of Nations (including a humiliating reversal at the hands of the Egyptians), finishing fourth, and have subsequently suffered defeat in two consecutive matches in 2010, conceding six unanswered goals in the process. Granted these have been against more highly fancied opposition, but we can hardly call this ideal preparation for a World Cup.
News that will be a boost for the North African side however is that Nadir Belhadj appears to be recovering from injury, although he will sit out the opener against Slovenia regardless through suspension. The flexible full-back as been in fine form for Portsmouth this season and has rightly attracted interest from a host of top European sides. With the national team seemingly struggling in front of goal at present, the importance of Belhadj in a strong defence has never been greater. It is the rearguard of Algeria with which most will be familiar, with not only the Portsmouth man making a name for himself in European football, but also the aforementioned captain from the Bundesliga as well as Rangers’ Madjid Bougherra. These are the Algerian names we will hear the most of this Summer and so their involvement and indeed performance is imperative to Saadane’s side.
Little is expected of course from Algeria at the finals, a repeat of their previous two campaigns where they failed to progress from the first round seems likely but this is a better side that has landed in South Africa. The second round may well be a bridge too far but the entourage are making all the right noises from their base and all the signs are positive for a fit squad, despite some earlier setbacks. All that can be asked for by a World Cup minnow is that they give themselves every possible chance internally, a case of looking after their own affairs first, taking the campaign step by step. Aside from Belhadj’s suspension, it would appear that Algeria have done just that. There is tremendous positivity in the camp and the recognition that Slovenia could be their best chance of points may seem too frank for some, but it is in truth the reality. A positive start and a tight defence is vital for Algeria. The opener against Slovenia will not be easy, but the following fixtures against England and the United States respectively will take it to the next level for the unfancied Africans.