AFRICA’S premier international tournament is upon us. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) previews the Group B encounter on Sunday between Algeria and Zimbabwe.
Algeria v Zimbabwe | Sunday 16:00 | Eurosport
Algeria have claimed a sole success in their last nine (W1-D3-L5) opening matches at African Cup of Nations tournaments but with plenty of pundits queuing up to wax lyrical over the Desert Foxes squad, a routine victory is expected in their Group B curtain-raiser against Zimbabwe in Franceville.
Algeria are without doubt the superior side on paper – ranked fifth in the continent, the pre-match favourites rattled in 25 goals during qualification and arrive armed with a roster packed full of Premier League and elite European experience.
But football has (and never will be) won on paper. I can sit here and peddle the same guff that you’ll see here, there and everyone when Algeria are mentioned in AFCON quarters – great squad, smashed it in qualification – but we try and do things a bit differently here at WLB.
Algeria in mini-crisis
For example, how much has been made about Algeria’s preparation over the past year? Not much. The fact is, the Desert Foxes are in the midst of a mini-crisis.
Having drawn at home to Cameroon and beaten away by Nigeria in 2018 World Cup qualification, Algeria are failing in their race to reach Russia.
Surely those results, credentials and performances – both far more recent than their AFCON qualification adventure – should be taken into account over a 6-0 thrashing of Lesotho and 7-1 demolition of Ethiopia?
Algeria have W2-D1-L6 in their last nine AFCON outings and haven’t claimed the title since 1990. I’ll reiterate – this squad is good enough to go the distance – but we’re again overlooking arguably more disruption and negativity by focussing on the individuals on the field.
A coaching merry-go-round
The Desert Foxes used four different coaches in 2016 with George Leekens the third and final permanent boss to be employed towards the backend of the year and the Belgian certainly isn’t accustomed to playing front-foot attacking football – anything but, in fact.
The 67 year-old wasn’t a popular appointment due to his penchant for playing five at the back. And although a 4-2-3-1 looks most likely here, his pragmatism is enough to put my off delving into any sort of handicap selection.
Algeria’s defence must also be called in front of the jury. The backline has made numerous individual errors over the past 12 months with the Desert Foxes appearing slow and cumbersome at centre-half whilst the full-back positions feature players more at home going forward than with their backs to goal.
Warriors’ off-field distractions
Zimbabwe are ranked 30th on the continent and haven’t been short of their own troubles. The Warriors are making their first AFCON appearance since 2006 and have also been distracted by off-the-field distractions.
Kalisto Pasuwa’s men will be playing their opener in an unbranded kit after their sportswear company failed to deliver it on time. Elsewhere, numerous players refused to attend a farewell gala and many missed scheduled flights to the tournament in a dispute over pay.
The row has since been resolved and the Warriors fired warning shots at their Group B rivals when picking up a 1-1 draw against Cameroon during last week’s friendly match in Yaounde. Dismissed as no-hopers in a group featuring three of the top-five ranked African teams, Zimbabwe shouldn’t be written off.
Don’t write Zimbabwe off
Pasuwa’s seen his side lose just once in 11 competitive encounters and their flexible 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation allows his speedy side to play to their strengths – there’s a real directness to their play, especially down the flanks and a team that’s packed with dynamism, pace and power.
Zimbabwe aren’t expected to make any changes to his preferred starting XI from qualification but he will be without suspended Netherlands-based midfielder Marvellous Nakamba, paving the way for the inclusion of Danny Phiri.
Nevertheless, the quality going forward in Knowledge Musona and 2016 CAF Champions League star Khama Billia should cause their highly-rated opposition problems and I certainly wouldn’t rule out the Warriors getting on the scoresheet.
Having built them up, it’s hard to ignore the 19/20 offering from Coral on Over 0.5 Zimbabwe goals. Algeria’s have failed to record clean sheets in competitive clashes with Ethiopia, Tanzania and Lesotho in the past 18 months and their less than steady defence could again come a cropper here.
Algeria v Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe to score Over 0.5 Goals (19/20 Coral)