AFCON 2021 Preview: Group E
The Desert Foxes are here for consecutive AFCON titles, but they need to go past recent Elephant champions, while the Nzalang Nacional aim for third place ahead of the unfancied Leone Stars.
Où est Riyad?
The star left Manchester after City beat Arsenal and was expected to join his national team in Doha. But when they played Ghana in friendly, he was neither in the starting line-up nor on the bench.
Social media police were put to work and in no time, they discovered that photos on his fiancée’s Instagram timeline were taken in the same place as a popular French influencer in Dubai. Mahrez wasn’t spotted in the post as another school of thought suggests he might be isolating after the outbreak of Covid-19 at his club side.
On Saturday, the Algerian captain showed up on social media, updating that he was travelling with his teammates to Cameroon. Maybe he’s not been worried about settling in, knowing Les Fennecs’ first match is against the hapless Sierra Leone.
Mahrez Still the Key Man
However, Algeria know how crucial Mahrez will be if they are to successfully defend their title.
The captain played a pivotal role in their 2019 triumph scoring three goals – with his most important being the late winner from an expertly converted free-kick against Nigeria in the semi-finals.
The 30-year-old hasn’t looked like stopping since, especially in the Desert Foxes shirt. The winger scored five goals in six World Cup qualifiers.
At club level, Mahrez’s 10 goal contributions (six goals and four assists) means he has now reached double figures in the Premier League in each of his four seasons at Manchester City.
Coming into the tournament as one of the poster boys, the former Leicester forward is expected to put on a show to justify the tag.
Belmadi, the Real Algerian Star
Mahrez will, like all Algerians, aim to retain the title and join three other sides who have done so – Egypt (1957, 1959; 2006, 2008, 2010), Ghana (1963, 1965) and Cameroon (2000, 2002).
Algeria have a high chance to win again, with the real star of this team being coach Djamel Belmadi – who played briefly for Kevin Keegan’s 2003 Manchester City side.
Before he got the job, the Desert Foxes had gone through five foreign coaches who had done little. Under the 45-year-old, this team has represented the ideals of the people, both in behaviour and in how they play.
Will he feel the pressure? No, not this guy. To have played for both PSG (for a year) and Marseille (for four years over two spells) means he knows how to handle the hot seat. He’ll be fine.
And he’s managerially smart too, naming a squad that’s as experienced as it is fresh.
At the recent Arab Cup, a few players who excelled have been rewarded with places in this squad: Houcine Benayada (defender), Mohamed Tougai (probably the best defensive prospect in the team now), and Ilyes Cheti (defender). 15 of the 23 players – including nine of the starters – were part of the title-winning team from in 2019.
The coach is avoiding the mistake of legendary Egyptian Hassan Shehata who, after his team’s aforementioned treble, failed to transition a new crop before decline set in. Expect this Algerian team to be very balanced.
Speaking of Egypt, the two sides could meet in the round of 16 in what will surely raise tensions among these two sworn rivals. The Desert Foxes could also meet Nigeria. It’s fair to say that doing a back-to-back won’t come easily.
A Talent Pool Envied by Many
He is electric. Even better, he’s the quintessential Algerian footballer: outspoken, a dribbling whiz, scorer of lovely goals (his most recent being a screamer from more than 40 yards in the Arab Cup semi-finals), mixed with a sprinkling of hot-headedness, but not in a bad way.
Belaïli was suspended by CAF in 2015 for doping (he is alleged to have taken cocaine). Luckily, the four-year ban was shortened to two years, and he came back in inspired form. Belaïli resurrected his career for Esperance, for whom he was a key figure when they won the CAF Champions League consecutively in 2018-2019.
After that, he went to Saudi Arabia (it did not end well) and then went to Qatar SC, where he scored 15 in 22 games. Now clubless, Belaïli will surely get a suitor by the end of this tournament.
He came to real international prominence at the last AFCON, where he perhaps sparkled more than any other Algerian player.
Notice how well Belaïliand Bounedjah, the scorer of the winner in the 2019 AFCON final, celebrate together? It comes as no surprise as the pair grew up side-by-side and spent a considerable amount of time together. They even went on to play youth football together for an amateur club in Oran.
Bounedjah comes into this tournament in form, as usual. The 30-year-old has scored 11 goals in 11 Qatar Stars League games.
Despite scoring two goals and providing an assist in the last edition of the AFCON – whilst playing in every game – Bounedjah will get limited minutes this time. Islam Slimani, who is Algeria’s all-time leading scorer with 39 goals, is expected to get a lot more minutes in Cameroon. Although the 33-year-old has just one goal in 12 appearances for Lyon, his form for Algeria has been sensational. He scored seven goals in six World Cup qualifiers and was also on target against Ghana in the pre-tournament friendly.
Not exactly a new talent in age terms, Benlamri is a late bloomer. A throwback to hatchet men, he made his national team debut aged 29. Benlamri looks right out of 1980s football: doesn’t bother with the hair, looks craggy in a rustic way and simply focuses on defending.
He became a national symbol in the AFCON 2019 final when photos emerged of him drenched in his own blood after a clash with Sadio Mane, who seemed to have elbowed him.
At 26, he’ll be playing his first major tournament with the Desert Foxes. Since his international debut in September 2015, the West Ham winger has struggled for consistency in the national team setup.
The former Brentford man was included in Algeria’s title-winning squad in 2019 but had to be excluded after sustaining an injury so close to the tournament. Luck has shone on him this time and he will be in Cameroon. To Belmadi, he will feel like a new addition – one that could inspire his side to reach newer heights.
World Record in Sight
Speaking of newer heights, Algeria have their sights on two things in Cameroon: to defend their title and set a new world record for most consecutive unbeaten games in international football.
Currently, Italy hold that record with 37 games unbeaten after going all the way during the Euro 2020. The Desert Foxes, who are currently on a 34-game unbeaten run (26 wins, 8 draws) after beating Ghana, will look to replicate the successes of Italy.
This incredible run by Algeria dates back to November 2018 when they responded to a shocking defeat by Benin in the previous month by beating Togo 4-1.
In June 2021, Belmadi’s men set a new African record after another 4-1 win against Togo meant they had gone 27 games unbeaten. Ivory Coast were the previous holders of this record remaining unbeaten for 26 games stretching from 2010 to 2013.
If the two-time winners remain unbeaten in the group stage, they will equal Italy’s run and will most likely have a chance to break it in Cameroon during the knockout stages.
Are they as good as the 2015-winning side?
To be honest, no. But there is a very high opinion of these Elephants, even though they’ve not quite earned it. Once more blessed with many talented players, the last few years have shown little evidence for them to be feared.
They didn’t qualify for the AFCON knockout stages in 2017, and two years later they were kicked out by Algeria. In between that, they didn’t qualify for the World Cup, and since then have been ordinary.
There is little discernible style of play, but they do know how to grind results. In the last World Cup qualifier with Cameroon, the West Africans did not do much at all, but lost 1-0.
Qualification out of this group is expected with the kind of players available. And with failure to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar, fans will be expecting a trophy in order to be appeased.
The Crystal Palace man has a strange relationship with his country. Once eligible to play for England, he made his debut for the Ivorians at the 2017 AFCON after switching his international allegiance from the Three Lions, for whom he won two caps in friendly internationals.
The news of his switch to Ivory Coast was one that left many on the continent excited. But so far, it’s been far from ground-breaking with the Crystal Palace forward yet to dazzle for the Elephants.
The 29-year-old showed signs of how good he can be in the last AFCON scoring in Ivory Coast’s final group game against Namibia and then the winner in the round of 16 against Mali.
Zaha is one of the best players in the Premier League at running with the ball at opposition players. Since 2020-21, only four players have attempted more take-ons than he has in the English top-flight.
He also provides end product when he attempts to take on an opponent, with 12 shots and 10 chances created following a take on – only Adama Traore has been involved in more shots following a take on in the Premier League since the start of last season than he has.
His pace and trickery is always a good asset and if Ivory Coast could set up in a way that gives Zaha space in the final third, he could be a threat in Cameroon.
Kessié will be expected to pull the strings for Ivory Coast during the AFCON like he has in previous years. The weight of expectation for him in international football is perhaps similar to that at club level. The 25-year-old has been an integral part of Milan’s midfield in recent seasons. Since the start of last season, he’s been important in recycling possession for the Serie A giants, starting the fifth-highest open play passing sequences that have led to shots, and second-most by a Milan player in the competition.
In 2019, Ivory Coast were knocked out on penalties. So yes, penalties are very important in tournament football. Having a man who’s an expert from 12 yards is an added advantage. Kessié has scored 13 of his 16 league penalties since the start of last season, both tallies are only beaten across the big five leagues by Wissam Ben Yedder (15/17).
At just 17, this boy will be a star. As soon as he turns 18, he’s expected in Europe. For now, the CAF Confederation Cup (Africa’s second-tier club competition) has enjoyed the attacker’s blistering pace, mature mind and goalscoring ability.
Sadly, the ASEC Mimosas player – who was key in the team’s romp to last season’s domestic league title – may not get much playing time in this stacked team, but if the Ivorians qualify by the second game, fans may be treated to his talent in Game 3.
See you in the future, Karim.
In this country, it’s always big news when a good goalkeeper is discovered because they’ve had a recent history of producing howler-prone ‘keepers (hi Copa Barry). The 24-year-old is highly rated and plays for local side San Pedro and was a big reason why they won the Ivory Coast Cup.
Regular choice Sylvain Gbouhou was recently banned by FIFA for taking a banned substance, leaving the door open for the steady Tapé to stake a claim in goal.
Strong in the air and a good finisher, Haller gained plenty of favour with AFCON fans after taking a swipe at “disrespectful” comments from major European clubs and officials who wanted the competition postponed.
The Ajax man has 22 goals in all competitions this year and has six assists. He’s the man.
The 27-year-old striker is in the form of his life and the AFCON comes at the best time for him.
He is currently bossing the Champions League breaking all sorts of records. Haller reached 10 Champions League goals in fewer appearances than any other player in the competition history (six appearances), and also became only the second player in UEFA Champions League history to score in all six matches of a single group stage, after Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017-18.
His goals have been no fluke as the Ajax man has the highest expected goals total overall (7.72) and from non-penalty shots (6.93), while also averaging a remarkable 53% shot conversion rate.
The Champions League top scorer could be a weapon for Patrice Beaumelle in the AFCON because of how he starts games well. In 2021, Haller scored nine Eredivisie opening goals – the most for one player in a single calendar year since Graziano Pellè in 2013 (13).
A Man Seeking His Own Path
Patrice Beaumelle will be the youngest coach at the tournament but among the most experienced. The 43-year-old Frenchman served as an assistant to Herve Renard when Zambia won the title in 2012 and again with the Ivory Coast.
He then struck out to write his own story in 2019 when Renard left for Saudi Arabia and he stayed on, becoming the national team coach for the Ivorians.
Will he be as lucky in Africa as his former boss?
Not much is expected from Sierra Leone. They won one game in the entire qualifying journey and drew five. Somehow, they made it to Cameroon.
The Leone Stars make a return to Africa’s biggest football festival after 26 years and will be hoping to go past the group stages for the first time.
In Cameroon, expectations remain the same as it would be incredibly tough to beat defending champions Algeria and two-time champions Ivory Coast. However, if John Keister’s men could put together decent performances against the aforementioned teams and beat Equatorial Guinea, they could qualify as one of the best third-placed teams.
Put bluntly, they’re not a strong team and talent is not abundantly flowing in this side. Well-known Premier League man Steven Caulker, figuring his chances of representing England would not happen, completed his switch to feature for Sierra Leone in December. The former Liverpool defender, now a Fenerbahce player on loan at Gaziantep, will make his competitive debut at the tournament.
The Team’s Spine
Keister isn’t going to alter his squad and believes this team could propel them to reach the knockout round for the first time.
Alhadji Kamara will be a key man in Cameroon for Sierra Leone. The striker falls in the bracket of a journeyman having played in Sweden, USA, Malaysia, and now the titular striker at Randers in Denmark. This season he has six goals in 14 games.
As mentioned, one of Sierra Leone’s most experienced players in this tournament will be Steven Caulker, who has played at the highest level. The 30-year-old became eligible to play for the Leone Stars in December 2020.
Caulker made his England debut almost a decade ago in a friendly against Sweden but that remained his only cap. Under FIFA’s new eligibility rules, the former Tottenham defender qualified to play for the Leone Stars through his paternal grandfather, who is Sierra Leonean.
The centre back has been slowly assimilated into the squad after he was invited for a national team training camp in October 2020 where he featured in a friendly against Morocco’s home-based team.
Aged 11 Mustapha Bundu found himself in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, which had just experienced a shattering civil war that lasted a decade. Understandably, opportunities were scarce for a young boy who had dreams of becoming a footballer.
Being the first graduate from Craig Bellamy’s now-defunct football academy, Bundu had the opportunity to travel to England on a student visa to study at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire.
He was eventually snapped up by Hereford and played non-league football. The only issue was Bundu’s visa didn’t allow him to play professionally. He eventually moved to Denmark where he started playing professional football and is currently an Anderlecht player, loaned to AGF in Denmark.
With one goal in three games for the Leone Stars, Denmark-based Bundu will look to play a more prominent role in the upcoming tournament.
Kei Ansu Kamara scored just one goal in the AFCON qualifiers, but it was conceivably the most important one for the people of Sierra Leone. His goal from the penalty spot against Benin secured qualification to Cameroon for the Leone Stars.
Kamara, 37, is a veteran, who may not play every minute, but his inclusion could help improve squad harmony and also provide experience.
The HIFK forward spent 13 years playing in Major League Soccer and is the fifth all-time top scorer in the league.
The Coach, an Englishman
Manchester-born Keister played English league football at Walsall and was a Sierra Leone international during a spell at non-league Margate, where his coaching career also started.
He went to Sierra Leone to coach at FC Johansen before taking over as national coach in 2017.
His first stint with the Leone Stars ended prematurely after he was suspended by the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) just three months into the job.
A recording of the former Sierra Leone midfielder criticising SLFA president Isha Johansen was made public, and he was suspended as a result.
He was however reinstated during the 2019 AFCON, but Sierra Leone were suspended from international football after government interference in the running of the football association.
Keister returned to his role in March 2020, replacing Ghanaian coach Sellas Tetteh, who resigned due to personal reasons.
Despite securing qualification to the AFCON, Keister received death threats after he named his squad for the tournament.
“I don’t think it should get to that point where my life is being threatened because people feel players should be in [the squad] – and if they are not, this is what they are going to do,” Keister said.
A curious team.
In 2012, ahead of hosting the AFCON, the Nzalang Nacional dealt with the dearth in quality by naturalising players galore: from Colombia, from Cameroon, from Nigeria, from Brazil and other eclectic places in between.
Now, they’ve changed tactics and have players from the diaspora, just like they did in 2015. Speaking of which, this will be the first time the Equato-Guineans have qualified by actually qualifying, not by hosting as they did in 2012 (with Gabon) and 2015.
At the time, there was a certain sporadic intensity about them, but not so anymore
The lack of fluency is distinct; it is clear that these are a decent crop of players. Technically, not bad. But tactically they are a bit of a mess, making it hard to understand how they got out of qualifying Group C ahead of Tanzania and Libya. The simple answer is that the latter two were a bit naïve.
Observers may then ask how this team beat Tunisia in November. Well, they simply had one chance and converted, after which the Nzalang defended their hearts out.
A visit to the country immediately shows how much they value anything Spanish, and this has been reflected in their appointment of coaches over the years. The current manager, Juan Micha, is Spanish-trained and has extensive experience among his country’s national teams: U17, U20 (men and women), and the senior women’s team.
He was asked to step in as a caretaker coach in November 2020 in the AFCON qualifiers and was offered a one-year contract last March.
Very much an establishment man, Micha has continued the systemic call-up of players mainly from the Spanish lower divisions. In this squad, more than five are fourth-division players, including Luis Meseguer (Navalcarnero), Saul Coco (Las Palmas reserve team), Esteban Obiang (Antequera), Federico Bikoro (Hercules) and Marvin Aniebo (Cacereno).
Basilio Ndong was part of the 2018 Championship of African Nations – a tournament made exclusively for home-based African players – and after that, he moved to Macedonia. Now he’s based in the Norwegian second division and is one of the few non-Spain based players in this setup.
Beyond this mix of semi-pros and lower division players are three key players.
He declined the callup in 2012 and only joined when a contract was agreed with the Equatorial Guinea FA to pay all his expenses for every national assignment. As a player, he’s made a big difference. He’s sort of like Dani Alves – he can play right back, winger, and also up front. It helps that he’s committed and will captain the side. It was his last-minute goal that beat Tanzania and sent his side to Cameroon.
He will captain the Nzalang Nacional in Cameroon but has been without a club this season. Head coach Juan Micha still believes Nsue has worked hard in training and could gain rhythm during the tournament.
If you ever met Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior, don’t ask him about Don Carlos. Ever. The more famous Brazilian was eaten for supper when Los Blancos met Cadiz in December. It was the sort of performance that earns a player a move to a bigger team.
Akapo’s the only player who features in La Liga or an equivalent league in this Equato-Guinean squad. His younger brother, Javier, is also in the squad.
If he were more popular, he’d make the Most Frustratingly Talented Players list. Gifted and capable of great goals, the forward is too prone to lapses in judgement. But his erratic style means it’s hard to drop him.
The Curious Case of Pedro Obiang
One of the team’s standout players, Obiang will not be there. He’s not played football since last season after reportedly having complications from taking a Covid-19 vaccine. Obiang, 29, received his COVID shot in July and was hospitalized shortly after with heart problems.
The Sassuolo player was discharged after ten days but was told that he won’t be able to play football for a minimum of six months. There’s no official confirmation that his condition is due to the jab, but it’s been widely reported.