Will Algeria be harrowed by the poisoned chalice of favoritism?
Algeria remains everyone's pick to take home the trophy
If there's one tournament you probably don't want to be favorites for, it’s the African Cup of Nations. Littered on the path between tournaments are the graves of the previously-tipped, struck down by their supposed superiority. Many teams fail to live up to the lofty expectations pressed upon them, heaping tons of emotional pressure on the players. Just ask Ivory Coast.
Despite being the most open tournament for some years, Algeria takes the mantle of this year's favorites. The North Africans – having not won the competition for a quarter of a century – will look to continue the relative domination of the region since the turn of the millenium, with four out of the last eight AFCON victors coming from this part of Africa. However, you could argue that in the last 10 years, only one favorite has ended up lifting the trophy – namely, Egypt in 2008.
Despite all this, Algeria are favorites for a reason. Clearly the best side in Africa at the moment, their magnificent performance at the World Cup in Brazil last summer was a metaphorical warning shot to the rest of the continent, with a desperately unlucky 2-1 extra time loss to eventual champions Germany stopping them from progressing further. And they're most definitely aware of this superiority.
Wasting no time
With coach Vahid Halihodzic choosing to leave after the World Cup, despite pleas from the president of Algeria, new manager Christian Gourcuff wasted no time in announcing his squad – evidence of their confidence ahead of the 2015 tournament in Equatorial Guinea. Deciding to not change a winning formula, with the majority of the squad remaining the same post-World Cup, Algeria were the second side to qualify for the competition, garnering an impressive 15 points out of a possible 18.
Gourcuff has put his own little signature on the team, however. Whilst Halihodzic advocated a tactical flexibility to adapt to the opposition's weaknesses, Gourcuff is much more rigid in his views, sticking largely to the 4-4-2 formation that saw him bring success to FC Lorient in France. As well as this, the new boss has brought in a possession-heavy mentality to the team, showing their clear superiority over their opposition by pure control of the ball.
With so many strengths, it's difficult to choose just one, but you have to talk about Yaccine Brahimi. Recent winner of the BBC African Player of the Year award, his time with Porto since the start of the season has seen him blossom into one of the finest attacking midfield players in Europe at the moment. Netting a hattrick in his first Champions League game for the club, he has become one of Europe's most feared players, with the $7.7m fee they paid for him from Granada such a bargain that it's almost unlawful. Recognising this, Goufcuff has given him the freedom of the pitch, meaning he has reign to do whatever he wishes to ensure the ball hits the back of the net somehow.
As well as having this individual talent, the Fennec Foxes have the advantage of consistency. After their abhorrent showing at the last edition of AFCON, their World Cup run followed by the most recent qualification period shows that the wind is very much behind them, and have not come down from the high of Brazil – despite the change off staff personnel. A motivated team lacking the same egos which have held them back in the past, the blend of young, exciting talent like Nabil Bentaleb and Aissa Mandi with the more experienced heads of Majid Bougherra and Medhi Lacen is ideal tournament football, and are likely to be dazzling prospect for the opposition that comes up against them.
However, despite the abundant positives, they will have to maximise their utility if they are to succeed in Equatorial Guinea, with the African football gods seemingly conspiring against them. The first targets in the crossfire is the incredibly tough opposition they have been placed with in the group. In the officially ratified “Group of Death,” they will have to get past Senegal, Ghana and South Africa before they even reach the knockout stages, and whilst the old mantra that “you have to beat the best to be the best” is perhaps applicable here, I think Algeria would have probably preferred a slightly easier set of teams to kick things off.
To compound this, there are concerns over their facilities in Equatorial Guinea. Based in Mongomo for the first two matches, the hastily-laid plans to host this tournament has resulted in a hastily-laid pitch, having only been put down a few weeks ago. Likely to cut up fairly quickly, there are fears that this could put a kink in the flow of Algeria's passing play, so the extent to which they are prepared to fly to Goaltown rather than drive remains to be seen.
In spite of all the bollards they will have to slalom between, Algeria remains everyone's pick to take home the trophy, and the extent to which they can avoid Ivory Coast syndrome will be a testament to the credentials of this side.
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