Algiers, May 28 (DPA) After 24 years away from the World Cup finals, Algeria are long shots to make an impact in South Africa this summer. But some top-drawer victories in their recent history combined with a nothing-to-lose attitude might spur the Desert Foxes to a surprise in a manageable Group C against England, the United States and Slovenia.
Reaching the first African finals was hard work for the Algerians, who completed perhaps the most dramatic path to footballs showpiece event.
Losses in two of their first three qualifying matches left them neck deep in the second African group stage, and only an 87th-minute equaliser by Gambia against Senegal on the final match day saw Algeria top the table by a single point.
In the final round of qualifying, they landed in a group with more heralded North African rivals Egypt. An early 3-1 win over the Pharaohs gave them poll position of the group, but a 2-0 defeat in Cairo in the final round of matches left the two sides in a literal dead heat.
Against the odds, the Foxes held their nerve and resisted the Egyptians 1-0 in an intense qualifying play-off held in Sudan with defender Antar Yahia the goal-scoring hero.
Riots followed in both countries, but the Algerians had proved to the continent they were worthy representatives.
Just six weeks later, the 1990 African champions again had their fair share of drama at the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. Stunned by Malawi 3-0 in their opening match, they recovered to reach the knockout rounds where they met heavily fancied Ivory Coast.
A 3-2 come-from-behind victory over the Elephants, which included an equalizer in injury time of the second half, saw them into the semi-final.
However, they were on the wrong side of the Pharaohs’ revenge in the last four, falling to a shambolic 4-0 drubbing while having three players sent off.
Experienced coach Rabah Saadane, who has led Algeria on five separate occasions including a stint during their peak years in the mid-1980s, knows that such losses of composure will be fatal to their chances at the World Cup.
Saadane and some of his senior players have been trying to downplay expectations for the finals this summer, pointing out rightly that the side lack much top-level experience.
Just the experience playing at a World Cup will be great for us,’ said Glasgow Rangers Madjid Bougherra, who forms a solid central defensive partnership with goal-scoring hero Antar Yahia of VfL Bochum.
‘We may not be favourites in our group, but we have nothing to lose and anything can happen once you are there,’ he said.
Bougherra and Yahia look to keep things tight at the back for Portsmouths Nadir Belhadj, who raids forward from his left back spot.
Captain Yazid Mansouri is the engine of the midfield, while VfL Wolfsburgs Karim Ziani and Borussia Monchengladbachs Karim Matmour can be dangerous on the counter attack.
Sienas Abdelkader Ghezzal has become the number one focal point in attack, however, 35-year-old Rafik Saifi still offers a dynamic option up front.
The coach: Known affectionately as `the Sheikh’, Rabah Saadane will be the only African coach at the World Cup finals. The 64-year-old has been involved with the Foxes since the early 1980s, leading the team on five separate occasions.
He was an assistant when the side won two matches at Spain ’82 but were unfortunate to go out at the group stage after Germany and Austria conspired to draw.
He led the team himself at Mexico ’86, where an opening group that included Brazil and Spain was always going to prove too strong. Saadane most recently took over the team in 2007 after they failed to reach the 2008 Cup of Nations. He also has had club success, winning the African Champions League with Raja Casablanca.
The star: Although Karim Ziani struggled to get regular playing time this season at his German club VfL Wolfsburg and is being linked with a move away, he is sure to be a key figure for the Foxes this summer. Nimble and energetic, the diminutive midfielder is not afraid to win the ball and then launch attacks himself. His direct running and accurate crossing have become invaluable for a side that can struggle to build forward momentum.
In qualifying, he was joint-top in both appearances and goals, and he was hailed as Algerias best player at the Cup of Nations earlier this year. The France-born players cross set up Antar Yahia for the header that beat Egypt and sent the Foxes into the World Cup.