One would be certainly bold to believe Riyad Mahrez and Algeria would struggle at this year’s AFCON tournament. With Mahrez scooping up two titles (BBC and CAF African Footballer of the Year Awards) after a brilliant 2015-2016 season, a few would have predicted the lackluster showing the Desert Foxes have displayed thus far in the competition. Playing alongside a collection of top performing players in some of Europe’s big leagues including Soufiane Feghouli, Yacine Brahimi and Nabil Bentaleb, meant Mahrez had enough ammo to make this tournament his own.
Until recently, Algeria was Africa’s highest rated country on the FIFA rankings; the North African country was replaced at the top spot by Senegal mere weeks to the tournament. But two games into the competition, very little has gone right for Algeria. Yes, their top gun has been on target as Mahrez has bagged two goals in the matchup against the Warriors of Zimbabwe. However, those goals have had little meaning to address the flagging fortunes of the team in Gabon as a 2-2 draw against Zimbabwe was quickly followed by a 1-2 loss to Tunisia.
Heading into the final round of games, the Desert Warriors need a big win over already qualified Senegal whilst looking out for a draw or a narrow win from Zimbabwe to stand a chance of qualifying from the group. Up to this point, Riyad Mahrez has largely disappointed and it shouldn’t surprise many considering how things are panning out at his club Leicester City. Light years far away from clinching a title, the Foxes won arguably the biggest but definitely the richest of all titles in England by lifting the Premier League last season.
The achievement was so astonishing Coach Claudio Ranieri was named Best Coach at FIFA’s annual award ceremony despite Zinedine Zidane winning the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup. With nine games left to play, the Premier League’s defending champions lie 15th with just five points separating them from relegation candidate Hull City who have 16 points and lie 18th. There was this feeling ahead of the season, Leicester would not match the heroics of last season as teams in the division would look at them in a different way than they did for a major part of the last campaign.
Though the club lost midfield enforcer N’Golo Kante, reputable reinforcements came in the shape of Nampalys Mendy and Wilfred Ndidi roped in whilst Daniel Amartey benefitted from an in-house development, Leicester has struggled this season. Its latest loss, a 0-3 hammering at the hands of Chelsea worsened the indignation of the Foxes campaign as the worst performing defense of the league title. Curiously, that title belonged to Chelsea following an abysmal season that had Jose Mourinho dismissed as Coach.
Truth be told, the club is suffering from dealing with a phenomenon is it not used to-big expectations and unfortunately for Mahrez and Slimani-who joined Leicester ahead of this season-it is the same for their country. Algeria is unchartered waters; the country has not featured this prominently on the African scene since winning the AFCON in 1990. However, the stellar collection of players that match those of Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation coupled with the side’s impressive performance at the 2014 World Cup naturally put Algeria in the spotlight. As the only African side to make it to the knockout stage of the World Cup, the Warriors lost to eventual World Champions Germany after extra time.
That display earned rave reviews for the side and two years on after an average quarter final stint at the 2015 AFCON in Equatorial Guinea, everything else seem to come together for the side to win it all in Gabon. Like, Leicester City, Algeria isn’t particularly used to such expectations and like Leicester, it has unsurprisingly struggled. Against Senegal, some magic must come from Mahrez, Slimani or pretty much anyone in this deep team to possibly rescue what has been a disappointing start to life as a heavy weight on the continent.
The tournament itself has slowly taken off as a barrage of goals have replaced the dull, nonchalant ambience of the low scoring round of games in the first round and Algeria must replicate that trajectory to stand a chance of fulfilling the basic requirement of qualifying out of the group. Failure to do so though, will mean Leicester gets it star winger back early to help spring themselves up the standings in a disappointing campaign.
By Yaw Adjei Mintah
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