Most of the members of the current Algeria squad were yet to be born when the country won its one and only CAF Africa Cup of Nations back in 1990. As that revealing fact shows, Les Fennecs have been away too long from the limelight, despite the best efforts of the many talented players who have run out for them in the years since then, among them Moussa Saib, Abdelhafid Tasfaout, Billel Dziri, Karim Ziani, Madjid Bougherra, Antar Yahia and Rafik Saifi.
Algeria’s new breed is regarded as one of the finest the nation has ever produced, a fact they underlined by qualifying for the second round of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. With Leicester City star Riyad Mahrez also picking up the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award in England last season and recently being named the BBC African Footballer of the Year, many Algeria fans are expecting Les Fennecs to kick on and win a second continental title in 2017.
It was with that very goal in mind that the Algerian Football Association appointed Georges Leekens as national team head coach. Reflecting on his side’s chances of success in Gabon in the next few weeks, the Belgian gave an exclusive interview to FIFA.com. “We’ve regained our poise after a tough start to the World Cup qualifiers,” said Leekens. “We know that the Africa Cup of Nations is a totally different competition to the rest of them, and I think Algeria will be up to the task, though I can’t guarantee any results. We’ll be doing all we can to play with honour and to lift the trophy.”
The man who took charge of Belgium at France 1998, Leekens is well aware that the African champions will represent the continent at this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017, though he is anxious not to get too far ahead of himself and to take each challenge as it comes. As he explained: “We want to win this tournament and take part in the Confederations Cup, but all I’m thinking about right now is negotiating our first match well against Zimbabwe and then the second against Tunisia. As far as I’m concerned, these are our two biggest games at the start of this year.”
A testing assignment
Just as in the third round of the African qualifiers for Russia 2018, Les Fennecs have not had the kindest of draws at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, where they will take on the continent’s first and third-ranked sides in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, not to mention Zimbabwe, who knocked out Ghana in the preliminaries. Not surprisingly, Leekens is guarded about his side’s chances in the first round.
“The match against Zimbabwe will be crucial,” he said. “Everyone is talking about Tunisia and Senegal, but I think we need to be very wary of this team. I see it as a very tough game. I know the Tunisia team well because I was coaching there not so long ago. I know pretty much everything there is to know about their players. They’re a strong side and they’ve been playing well these last few months. It’s going to be a special match for both countries, given the fact we’re neighbours. That’s why the fans are talking about it so much.”
As for Senegal, Leekens identified them as the group favourites: “The Senegalese play good football. I want to win our first two matches and make sure of qualification before we play them. It’s going to be a very tough match come what may.”
Keeping it tight
Whatever Leekens’s side’s chances are, one thing the pundits are agreed on is that the Algeria defence is not as formidable as it was at Brazil 2014, a topic that is generating more debate than any other back home. There are several factors behind that perceived loss of effectiveness at the back, not least Bougherra’s retirement and the absence of Rafik Halliche and Essaid Belkalem from the national side on the grounds that they are not playing enough competitive football at club level.
“Everyone’s talking about the defence and how it will perform in Gabon,” said Leekens. “I see things differently. We have to defend as a team and not give our opponents any gifts. We need to try and get the first goal. The important thing is not to chase after the ball in the opposition’s half, but to make sure we don’t squander the chances that come our way and that we don’t give goals away. The only way we’re going to win at the highest level is by addressing those kinds of issues.
“I’m not the kind of coach who looks to dominate games or who focuses only on attack and leaves gaps in defence. We need to play as a unit and stop the opposition from dictating the play, all while looking for solutions up front.”
Leekens has plenty of experience of African football under his belt, having already coached Algeria in 2003 and then taken charge of Tunisia at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. Well acquainted with the ins and outs of the African game, he knows what it takes to succeed on the continent.
“African teams usually start games at full throttle, but without testing their opponents,” he explained. “Then, as the minutes go by, the intensity drops, which is when you have to step things up and make the difference. Against Nigeria, for example, we played well in the second half, but only after we’d let in two goals in the first. If we’d played at the same level for the whole match, we’d have won.”
Wrapping things up, Leekens spoke of the need for his side to shine in Gabon: “We have a young team and they’ve got potential. My squad is a mix of players who play abroad and others who are based in the Algerian league. If they all perform at their usual level and we give them the confidence they need, we can go and get some good results. I’m expecting the players to give 200 per cent, so that we can be at our best at the Africa Cup of Nations.”