When Egypt and Algeria meet Thursday in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations semi-final in Benguela, there will be little mystery left on the pitch for the two old rivals, who have played three times previously over the last eight months.
Algeria can claim victory in two of those contests, finally and most importantly in a play-off that sent them to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ finals in South Africa this summer at the expense of their more heralded competitors.
The disappointment of missing out on yet another world finals still stings for the Egyptians, but for an experienced side trying for their third continental title on the trot, they know their primary focus at the Ombaka Stadium will be to stay on course for a record-breaking triumph.
They managed to keep a 100 per cent record at the Angolan event, albeit needing extra time to do so, against Cameroon in Monday’s quarter-final. It was their 17th Cup of Nations match without defeat, with their last setback in 2004 coming against, you guessed it, Algeria.
Egypt eye a treble
For many of Egypt’s ‘golden generation,’ the tournament represents a possible final tilt at the African championship. Essam Al Hadari, Wael Gomaa, even captain Ahmed Hassan, despite his protestations about staying on with the national team, are unlikely to be back for the next Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in 2012. And to end their international career with an unprecedented third successive title would be the perfect send-off, in a sense banishing away the ghosts of missing out on South Africa 2010.
One important figure sure to stay on is coach Hassan Shehata, who has been in charge of the team since after the 2004 failure. The 60-year-old has proven himself world-class at managing his side through the last three continental tournaments, and Egypt have been the pick of the litter in Angola right from the start after they beat Nigeria 3-1 in their opener.
As is his custom, Shehata has left the talking at the tournament to assistant Shawky Gharib, who refused to get tied into specific tactics to be employed against the Desert Foxes of Algeria (the Fennecs). “We have had a strategy for every game,” he explained. “Against Cameroon we kept them outside the penalty area and forced them to shoot from long range. And there will be a strategy for Algeria as well.”
And there will have to be, for the Algerians have recovered remarkably after a horror start to the tournament in Angola. Their 3-0 defeat to Malawi in Luanda on the second day of the finals threatened to turn their first Nations Cup finals appearance since 2004 into an embarrassing disaster.
Confident Algeria wait on fitness
But the mettle that was on display in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers has been obvious since that setback, notably against Côte d'Ivoire in Sunday’s quarter-final when the Algerians found themselves down a goal after just four minutes. They launched a comeback to draw level before half-time and then went on to win the game in extra-time, and there were few who questioned the merit of their win against the talent-laden Elephants.
It was a disciplined and opportunistic performance that the Algerians will have to duplicate against a more organised Egyptian side. One of the Foxes greatest strengths in the tournament has been Nadir Belhadj’s runs down the left. The Portsmouth player says Algeria are focused on the FIFA World Cup finals in six months, but also wary of another meeting with the Pharaohs. “Egypt have a very good team,” he said. “But we have a lot of momentum after a false start in the competition. It's a big game.”
A scare over the fitness of playmaker Karim Ziani has dominated Algeria's agenda over the last 24 hours but it is likely coach Rabah Saadane will make no changes for Thursday’s match. Algeria lead the head-to-head statistics between the two sides in A internationals stretching back almost 50 years with nine wins, to five for Egypt. There have been eight draws between the two teams.
The winners of Thursday’s match progress to the Nations Cup final in Luanda on Sunday to play Ghana or Nigeria, who meet earlier in the day in the capital city.