Every once in a while, a match comes along that gets people scribbling an X in their calendars months in advance. Whether it is a derby between city neighbours or countries sharing a border, or simply a showdown between teams that have never got along, these games rarely fail to provide tension, emotions and drama.
Fans of Manchester United and Liverpool know all about that from encounters between their two clubs and there is similar anticipation whenever the fixture computer reunites Barcelona and Real Madrid or River Plate and Boca Juniors.
The same goes for matches between Algeria and Egypt. Given that the duo rarely lock horns, expect a blistering atmosphere when the two sides renew acquaintances at the Stade Mustapha Tchaker in Blida on 7 June. "This is an extremely important match for the people of Algeria," team captain Yazid Mansouri explained to FIFA.com. "I'm already thinking about it, without getting too carried away. The pressure will slowly begin to rise from the start of our training get-together on 25 May."
Rivals for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the Desert Foxes and the Pharaohs are favourites to contest top spot in Group C of the third and final qualifying round. With one match already played, both possess one point - as do fellow hopefuls Zambia and Rwanda - so who will take an early lead in the race for the sole berth on offer in the section?
A look back at the history books provides few clues because both have had their dreams shattered by the other in the last few decades. Never were the stakes higher, for example, than in 1989, when the two countries met in a play-off for a ticket to Italy 1990. Egypt were chasing only their second finals appearance since the previous Italian edition 55 years earlier, whereas Algeria had participated in the last two editions. But despite that recent pedigree the Desert Foxes could only manage a goalless first leg in Constantine. With the tie in the balance and nerves on edge, more than 120,000 supporters gathered in Cairo a month later to witness Hossam Hassan head Egypt to a famous 1-0 victory.
Nearly 12 years later, the two sides met again on the road to Korea/Japan 2002. The Pharaohs were a team on the up at the time, building towards their 2006 and 2008 CAF African Cup of Nations triumphs, while the Desert Foxes found themselves immersed deep in a sporting crisis. Unsurprisingly, their first meeting ended in an overwhelming 5-2 win for Mido and Co.
The reverse fixture on 21 July 2001 also happened to be both side's final qualifier and, heading into it, Egypt were level with Senegal and three points behind a Morocco team not in action. Everything remained possible, but Algeria had forgotten neither the pain of their 1989 defeat nor the post-match incidents that accompanied it and set about providing the most committed opposition they could. When the final whistle blew, the scoreboard read 1-1 and the crowd packed into the Stade du 19 Mai 1956 in Annaba were able to revel in watching their old foes stricken with despair.
"Even though they had no chance of qualifying, the Algerians fought right to the end and got a draw after we'd taken a 1-0 lead," Ahmed Hassan told FIFA.com. "True, we would have needed a big win to go through to Asia, but that was a very difficult moment."
Tense past meetings
Since then, Egypt and Algeria have crossed paths just once, in the first round of the 2004 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. The very mention of that encounter is enough to elicit a broad smile from Mansouri. "We were down to ten men but we were still able to win 2-1," he recalled. "That remains one of the biggest moments of my career. It's up to us to draw inspiration from that in our next match."
The game in Blida will be their 21st overall, with Algeria boasting six wins, Egypt five and the other nine meetings finishing all-square. Beyond the raw figures, meanwhile, everyone is expecting a passionate occasion. "It's a match that looks set to be very intense," said Hassan. "As you might have expected, the press and the fans are already very excited. We'll have to be very careful because, in the end, it'll be the team that stays the calmest that'll be able to win it."
"Mental strength will definitely be what makes the difference," added the Desert Foxes' captain. "We'll need to try and forget the wider context and keep in mind that's it's just a game of football." Sometimes that is easier said than done.