Johannesburg (AFP) – Riyad Mahrez-led record-setters Algeria will be the team to avoid when the draw for a 2021 Africa Cup of Nations seriously disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic is made in Yaounde on Tuesday.
The defending champions created an African record for an unbeaten run by a senior national team in June when they won a friendly match in Tunisia to reach 27 matches without a loss.
Victory in neighbouring Tunisia eclipsed the record set by Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure-inspired Ivory Coast in February 2013.
Since losing a Cup of Nations qualifier in Benin 34 months ago, Algeria have won 20 competitive and friendly matches, drawn seven, scored 58 goals and conceded 17.
It is this form which makes the Desert Foxes early favourites to retain the Cup of Nations next February and conquer Africa a third time.
They are among 24 qualifiers who will be split into six groups with the winners and runners-up in each plus the best four third-placed teams advancing to the knockout phase.
Algeria won the premier African national team competition for the first time when they hosted a then eight-team event in 1990 and edged Nigeria 1-0 in the title decider.
A goal from Baghdad Bounedjah with less than two minutes on the clock in Cairo enabled Algeria to triumph again two years ago, this time over Sadio Mane’s Senegal.
Algeria will be among the six top seeds for the Yaounde draw, and however bold the public declarations of coaches may be before the event, privately they will be happy to dodge Mahrez and his teammates.
As one national coach, who requested anonymity, told AFP: “We say we do not fear any rivals, but desperately want to play potentially weak teams for as long as possible in any tournament.”
Manchester City winger Mahrez is the star attraction in a squad composed of footballers, many born abroad to Algerian parents, who perform for European and Middle East clubs.
Full-back Aissa Mandi, a long-time regular, recently swapped La Liga clubs, moving from Real Betis to Villarreal, and missed a penalty in the UEFA Super Cup shootout loss to Chelsea.
– Belmadi ‘a national treasure’ –
Mandi is set to play in the upcoming Champions League group stage, as will other Algerians, including Mahrez and AC Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer.
Captain Mahrez says much of the praise for the 27-match unbeaten run and the 2019 Cup of Nations triumph must go to Djamel Belmadi, now 45 and a one-time Manchester City midfielder.
“He is a national treasure. You cannot exaggerate his importance to the team. The work of Djamel is deeply respected by all Algerians,” says the 2016 African Footballer of the Year.
A concern for Belmadi, though, is that favourites have not succeeded in the Cup of Nations since 2010, when Egypt became the first country to win the competition three times in a row.
Zambia were shock winners in 2012, Nigeria exceeded expectations by finishing first one year later and, after many failures when favoured, it came as a surprise when the Ivory Coast finally triumphed in 2015.
Cameroon mocked the form book by succeeding in 2017 and hosts Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia were all considered stronger north African contenders than Algeria two years ago.
Some coaches will be under extreme pressure in Cameroon to go far, notably Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic with Morocco and German Gernot Rohr with Nigeria.
A condition of the Halilhodzic contract is that he must reach the semi-finals at least while Nigerian football bosses have told Rohr to win the competition.
Apart from Algeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Tunisia, Nigeria and Morocco are first seeds and strong title contenders.
Record seven-time champions Egypt, Ghana and Ivory Coast are other possible winners and those looking for a long-shot could consider Mali, runners-up to Congo when Cameroon were last hosts 49 years ago.
Cameroon were selected to stage the 2019 tournament, but fell behind with stadia and other preparations and Egypt had to take over at short notice.
Given a second chance, the central African nation have had to postpone the tournament twice due to wet weather concerns and Covid-19 and even the draw, originally set for June, was delayed by the pandemic.