Benlamri: Final will be a great showdown
Djamel Benlamri started against Sudan but missed next three games with injury
Player restored balance to Fennecs’ defence on his return against Qatar
Talks about semi-final win over hosts and Saturday’s final against Tunisia
In footballing terms, you could almost say that Djamel Benlamri was born again under current Algeria head coach Djamel Belmadi.
Under his stewardship, the centre-back established himself as a vital cog in the Greens’ rearguard en route to the continental title at the 2019 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt. There, he won the hearts of all Algerians, especially after the final, when he played until the end in a blood-stained shirt – a photo of which went viral, earning him the nickname 'the Warrior'.
After starting against Sudan in his side’s opener at the FIFA Arab Cup Qatar2021™, Benlamri picked up an injury that sidelined him for the Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco games. The centre-back returned to the starting XI for the semi-final against Qatar, with Madjid Bougherra keen to shore up a defence that was twice breached from set pieces in their quarter-final against Morocco.
The 31-year-old had a starring role in the last-four fixture, when he headed in his side’s opening goal. By his own admission, though, he is not yet back to his very best after a long spell on the sidelines with former club Lyon.
"I had some physical difficulties towards the end of the game and really wanted to avoid extra time, which thankfully we managed to do.
"It was a very difficult match – fiercely fought and with a lot of strong challenges. In the end, though, we won and went through to the final, which is what matters most," he told FIFA.com. "What happened between the players in the dying minutes was normal. Every player aspires to win, and we left the pitch as brothers. Qatar are a great team and one we respect a great deal."
A clash of old foes
Algeria certainly have plenty in common with final opponents Tunisia. As well as being neighbours and sharing a common language, history and culture, many Algerian players ply their trade in the Tunisian leagues.
Among Les Fennecs currently taking part in the Arab Cup and playing for Tunisian clubs are Abdelkader Bedrane, Ilyes Cheti, Mohamed Tougai, Hocine Benayada, Tayeb Meziani and Zineddine Boutmene. In addition, two of their biggest names, Youcef Belaili and Baghdad Bounedjah had spells in Tunisia before moving to Qatar.
"It's going to be a great showdown between two North African rivals who know each other well. It will be a difficult match and whoever deserves to win on the day will claim the title.
"The final will be decided by small details. Both teams will do everything possible to win, and the team that makes its presence felt most on the pitch and is the more focused will take the trophy. We’ll prepare well for the game and continue to show determination to win this Arab Cup," he said.
Recognition for fans
Benlamri wanted to end the interview with a message to the Fennecs fans who attended the semi-final against the hosts. Although the Algerian community in Qatar is not much more than 7,000 strong, they turned out in in large numbers to cheer on the national team, which badly needed that support from the stands.
"When we play for our country, we always try to make our fans happy. As players, we know very well what it costs them to travel to watch the national team. Some of them travelled here to Qatar on their own steam, using family savings to pay for tickets and accommodation.
"We’re also members of the public and feel the same way they do, which is why we’ll spare no effort to bring joy to our fans," concluded the player with emotion in his voice.
Those fans can rest assured that Benlamri and his team-mates will do everything possible to recompense that devotion with victory over their neighbours and the Arab Cup title.