That was it. Captain and Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez walked down ashamed and morose. His side, which was ranked the fourth-best team in Africa and was the defending champions of the Africa Cup of Nations, went down with a whimper.
They managed just one goal against clearly inferior opposition and conceded four. The Fennec Foxes’ campaign was characterized by desperation, disaster, and disappointment.
Now, with numerous stars sent to pack their bags from Jampo Stadium in Douala, many Algerians are stuck wondering where it went wrong.
Qualification and recent matches
Algeria were dominant in the 2021 AFCON qualification. There were big five-goal wins against Botswana and Zambia. There was also a quiet superiority Algeria exuded from their undefeated run. The Fennec Foxes emerged as a team that you could safely put your money on.
In the CAF World Cup qualification, Algeria dominated a helpless Group A. Their strength was emphasized by an 8-0 victory over Djibouti in their opening game. Algeria had the highest goal difference out of the 40 teams trying to qualify.
Lyon attacker Islam Slimani and Mahrez received most of the plaudits for Algeria. Yet the team behind Algeria’s 34-game-undefeated streak was elite by themselves. Sofiane Feghouli, Aissa Mandi, and Ismael Bennacer were also factors in Algeria’s success.
Rated as the favorite to take home the trophy for the second straight time, Algeria traveled to Japoma Stadium in Douala to defend their Africa Cup of Nations crown.
Algeria 0-0 Sierra Leone
Algeria opened up its title defence with a scoreless draw against Sierra Leone. Although their undefeated streak survived another day, Algeria looked nervous. Algeria was organized and looked miles ahead of a defensive Sierra Leone but was too jittery in front of goal. A total of eighteen shots was not enough to earn Algeria three points in a close game. Sure, Sierra Leone keeper Mohamed Kamara was magnificent in their clash. Yet Algeria had plenty of chances to knock in a goal.
“Algeria need to find another gear, particularly with Ivory Coast to come,” Guardian columnist Tom Davies asserted. Davies was right.
The Fennec Foxes did not have much time to turn things around, but it was essential to turn it around. The Africa Cup of Nations is a tournament of surprises, and any hesitancy can turn things around for the worst.
Algeria 0-1 Equatorial Guinea
Algeria drew worldwide attention for surrendering its 35-game-unbeaten streak. Even more humiliating for the Fennec Foxes, they lost to the #114-ranked team in FIFA. Algeria nearly scored their first 2021 Africa Cup of Nations goal in the 23rd minute, but Mahrez was offside in its buildup.
Equatorial Guinea had its chances as well. Eloy Edu sent a shot some inches above the crossbar, and the Equatoguinean offense was very aggressive.
That aggressiveness would help in the second half. Equatorial Guinea was prolific on the flanks, as they stifled usually-prolific Riyad Mahrez. A flummoxed Algeria would eventually concede a goal, as confusion after a corner gave defender Esteban Orozco an opportunity. Orozco took it.
Fast-forward past the ref’s three whistles, the frantic celebrations made by Equatorial Guinea team players, and the despair and desperations written across Algerian players, and the news spreads to the world.
Algeria is not the same team that we saw dominate small teams. In their second Africa Cup of Nations match, they looked hesitant, worried, and a little frustrated. There was still hope to put their issues aside. Although it would be tough, a win against the Ivory Coast could seal qualification to the knockout stage.
Algeria 1-3 Ivory Coast
Algeria came out convincingly aggressive, and for a fair bit of time, it looked like they would find the net for the first time this tournament. They forced the ball into advantageous positions but could not knock in a goal past Badra Ali Sangare. Yet the Elephants exploited Algeria’s porous defense first, as Milan midfielder Franck Kessie scored their first goal.
The key to the Ivory Coast’s success may have been their midfield dominance. Algeria could not make a lot of chances with their pinpoint passes, so they had to improvise. In the 39th minute, a calculated and precise Serge Aurier free-kick found Ibrahim Sangare for an easy header. He scored Ivory Coast’s second to give them a vantage point for the rest of the match.
From there, Ivory Coast dominated. The game felt like Napoleon sending a frenzied crowd of his opponents retreating. Nicolas Pepe scored The Elephants’ third of the game, making the game theirs to control.
The game, and possibly their whole African Cup of Nations campaign, could be symbolized by Riyad Mahrez’s penalty. The anxious hope beforehand, the disappointment of the penalty hitting the post, and the desperation of a failed put-back attempt.
Algerian striker Sofiane Bendebka scored to get the Algerian engines going, finally. Slimani set up chances, forcing Sangare(the keeper) into uncomfortable positions. Yet the Algerians could not find another goal, ending their campaign in front of a raucous Japoma Stadium.
Algeria was arguably the most talented team in their group. They carried the world’s best players, a brilliant soccer mind, and confidence into Cameroon.
Yet they left Japoma Stadium with downcast faces, confused minds, and many questions.
“In some periods, it becomes impossible to find a logical explanation for some of the results. We did everything that should be done in the match in terms of control and possession, but we did not score, which is the most important thing,” Algeria manager Djamel Belmadi stated after their 3-1 Ivory Coast loss.
Was it because home crowds could not propel the Fennec Foxes to victory? Was it an unfamiliar environment on their minds? Did cockiness cloud their mentality? Can we blame the unpredictability of the African Cup of Nations altogether?
A part of it may be due to coronavirus, and some of it may be the drama around European clubs releasing their stars. Yet most of it is because they could not find anything that propelled. The African Cup of Nations is a tournament where underdogs reign supreme. To stay relevant is tough and Algeria proved they were not up to that challenge. Algeria will need to show they are still one of Africa’s giants in a World Cup qualification home-and-away tie against host nations Cameroon.