Wednesday Nov 13, 2019. 14:31
Less than four months has passed since Algeria were crowned continental kings at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, but Djamel Belmadi and his team will already be opening the defence of their title when they tackle a pair of Southern Africans sides in their first two Group H qualifiers for the 2021 AFCON in the coming days.
The Greens (or Fennec Foxes, or Desert Warriors) will first face up to a fellow AFCON winner in Zambia with a clash at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in Blida on Thursday night, followed by a match away to Botswana in Gaborone’s National Stadium next Monday.
Belmadi has continued to evolve the team since their AFCON triumph, with the North Africans impressively defeating Colombia 3-0 in a friendly in France last month, while his selection for the start of the qualifiers has thrown up a few surprises.
This includes the dropping of high-profile attacking midfielder Yacine Brahimi, and a return for Haris Belkebla, who was the butt of many jokes after being dropped from the 2019 AFCON squad for exposing his backside on a live stream of an online game.
Other notable inclusions were forward Hillal Soudani, who was not part of the 2019 AFCON squad and returns to the national team after a lengthy absence, as well as French-born defender Maxime Spano Rahou.
Soudani, who has 49 caps to his name and is a veteran of four previous AFCONs, will be working with Belmadi for the first time: “I have not had the pleasure of working with him, but I am already excited about this idea,” the Olympiacos forward told Le Buteur.
“As usual, I will not skimp on the means to give everything to bring a plus to the team. Personally, I am very motivated to work even harder to rise to the occasion. We especially hope to continue on the right track and win our next two games against Zambia and Botswana.”
Spano Rahou, meanwhile, exemplifies the trust Algeria’s players have in Belmadi, as well as the dedication and single-mindedness which ultimately took them to glory on Egyptian soil back in July. The 25-year-old was born to an Italian father and Algerian mother in France, but there is no indecision about where his loyalties lie.
“Honestly, I have never lost the hope of representing my country and here Belmadi makes me live and feel the sense of pride that all Algerians feel when they are called to defend the colours of the selection,” he told Le Buteur.
“Indeed, I have always dreamed of playing for the country of my origins. I have been waiting for this call-up for a long time, now I know all the responsibility and the importance of wearing Algeria’s jersey and I cannot wait to start training with the group.”
The 25-year-old Valenciennes defender added, “We must first start this course with a win at home against Zambia, it is very important to maintain the momentum of success then score three entry points will allow us to address the move to Botswana with much more confidence, especially as that this match will take place in a very short time.”
Zambia, who did not qualify for the 2019 AFCON, will aim to finish ahead of Southern African rivals Botswana and Zimbabwe in Group H and join favourites Algeria in securing a berth for Cameroon 2021. Chipolopolo (the Copper Bullets) caretaker coach Aggrey Chiyangi believes the two teams are in very different phases compared to when they last met in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
Those games – played back-to-back in early September 2017 – saw Wedson Nyirenda’s Zambia complete a ‘double’ with a 3-1 win in Lusaka and 1-0 triumph in the return game in Constantine.
“It’s a different meeting. The level of the Algeria team is very high now. We are talking about African champions with great players. On the other hand our team has changed a lot compared to 2017. We have a young team but we will all make a great match against Algeria,” Chiyangi told DZ Foot following his team’s arrival in the North African country earlier this week.
Algeria have had little time to revel in their AFCON triumph, but if they can continue their upward trajectory under Belmadi, and start the road to the 2021 finals with a triumph over Zambia on Thursday night, then fans of the Greens can rest assured that more success could well be on its way.