Algeria's Desert Foxes at crossroads

HARARE - Only two years ago Algeria were the pride of the entire continent after they were the only African country to reach the second round of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

However, coach Vahid Halilhodzic refused to renew his contract shortly after returning from Brazil as he took up a job with Turkish side Trabzonspor.

Since then, it has been a whirlwind of ups and downs for the Desert Foxes as they have gone through three coaches from the last World Cup until now.

First to take charge of the side was Frenchman Christian Gourcuff, who managed to continue with the good work Halilhodzic had done in the past.

Under Gourcuff, the Desert Foxes rose to become the number one-ranked side on the continent according to the Fifa Coca-Cola listings.     

A lot was expected from Algeria following their performances in Brazil as they arrived at the 2015 Afcon tournament in Equatorial Guinea.

Gourcuff’s side navigated past the group stages but their tournament came to an end in the quarter-finals when they lost 3-1 to eventual champions Ivory Coast.

Despite that disappointment, the Frenchman renewed his contract after the tournament but his relationship with the media and the fans had already soured.

Desert Foxes fans are so demanding they do not require their team to just win matches but they want to win while playing attacking football.

In the end, Gourcuff could not tolerate the constant scrutiny and criticism he was receiving from the media and fans alike.

“Right now I am going to take a few days off and think about what I must do,” Gourcuff told the BBC in November 2015 when he took a sabbatical from the post.

“I cannot say if I am going to stay or not, because to take such a decision I first need to meet with the president of the Algerian federation and discuss things with him.”

Four months later, he finally quit to return to his former club Rennes in the French Ligue 1 in April this year.

That is when the real roller coaster ride commenced as the Algeria Football Federation (AFF) appointed Milovan Rajevac to take charge of the side.

The former Ghana coach lasted only three months on the job as he was on the dug out for the 6-0 win over Lesotho in the final qualifier for the 2017 Afcon finals in September.

His last match was the home 1-1 draw against Cameroon in their first match of the 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying campaign in Group B in October.

Rajevac had a serious fallout with the Desert Foxes players as they did not subscribe to his coaching methods.

Players openly blamed the Serb for the draw against the Indomitable Lions and a dressing room revolt soon followed.

Rajevac threw in the towel and AFF had no choice but to reunite with their former coach Georges Leekens in late October.

The former Tunisia coach was appointed just 16 days before a crucial World Cup qualifier away to Nigeria.

With such a short time to prepare for the match Leekens did not make too many changes as the Desert Foxes went onto lose 3-1 to the Super Eagles.

The Belgian has had more time to settle into his new job and will have his sights on making a huge impact in Gabon where the Desert Foxes are in the same Group B with Zimbabwe, Tunisia and Senegal.

The Warriors will take on the Desert Foxes in their first match in Franceville on January 15. On paper, Algeria have a good pool of talented players but the chopping and changing at the top has greatly affected the team’s performances.

At the moment, Algeria sit bottom of Group B of 2018 World Cup qualifying with only a single point after two matches.

In the loss to Nigeria, Leekens employed an attacking 4-3-3 obviously due to the talent at his disposal.

Upfront, the Desert Foxes had the trident of Leicester pair of Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani together with Yacine Brahimi.

Leekens chose the midfield trio of Bologna’s Saphir Taider, Schalke’s Nabil Bentaleb and Lagenes’ Carl Medjani.

At the back, the Desert Foxes lined up with Mohamed Ziti, Aissa Mandi, Faouzi Ghoulam, and Hicham Belkaroui whileRais Mbolhi was in goals.

In his previous stint with Tunisia, Leekens had favoured to play with a five-man defence with the wing backs providing width on the flanks.

At the moment, most people are expecting Algeria to blow away the opposition in Gabon due to abundance of good players in contention for a place in Leekens’ side.

This temptation to always play on the front foot might be the Desert Foxes’ downfall.

Leekens’ default tactic is to play with a solid defence and attack on the break but the Desert Foxes’ fans and the Algerian media will not be accepting such an approach.

Solving a problem like Riyad Mahrez will also be another big headache for Leekens as the Afcon kick-off draws closer.

The Leicester forward, who is currently the reigning English Premier League Player of the Year, has dipped in form of late.

Mahrez was even dropped to the bench in Leicester’s last match against Everton on Boxing Day with coach Claudio Ranieri demanding more from the Algeria star.

“He’s (Mahrez) not in good form now and I wanted to stimulate him,” Ranieri said after the loss to Everton.

“I didn’t see him do well during the training sessions and he must give more for the team. I want more.”

The Afcon tournament has not been known to arouse quality performance from pampered stars, who will be eager to return to their clubs in Europe.

Mahrez could become invisible on the pitch for the Desert Foxes s he sometimes does for Leicester as he fails to make an impact on the game.

While everyone is tipping Algeria to go all the way in Gabon, Leekens has a lot to do to get them playing their best football again.

As for the Warriors, this January might be the best time to play the Desert Foxes as they are still a team in transition.

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