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End of an era for champions Algeria as they suffer sad exit from Africa Cup of Nations

Riyad Mahrez’s penalty against Ivory Coast in the final group game of the 2021 African Nations Cup on Thursday summed up Algeria’s campaign.

With his team 3-0 down in a game the 2019 victors needed to win, Algeria were handed an undeserved spot kick. The Manchester City star, who had been anonymous for much of the group stage, hit the post. And that was the end of one of the worst tournament defenses you will see for a long time — right up there with France’s shambolic effort at the 2002 World Cup.

That global jinx has come to the African Cup of Nations with the champions crashing and burning in the first round. It is barely believable that Algeria are out and even less so that the early exit was completely deserved. All of the continent kept waiting for the team to get going but it never happened. The likes of Manchester City, Milan, Napoli, West Ham United, Lyon and Villarreal will be surprised and delighted at getting their players back almost three weeks earlier than expected while everyone else is just surprised that the likes of Mahrez, Ismael Bennacer and Aissa Mandi, who play at the  top of the European club game, could not even inspire their team to finish third in a group containing Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast. 

Where to start? Well, in the beginning there was a team that arrived in Cameroon with a 34-game unbeaten run — just three short of Italy’s world record — and genuine ambitions of a second successive title. The second string had won the Arab Cup in December and coach Djamel Belmadi, who had been in place since August 2018, led the team to continental glory in 2019 and is hugely popular. 

The opening 0-0 draw against Sierra Leone, a team ranked 118 in the world, 78 places below Algeria, was a surprise but such things can happen in the first game. The Leone Stars defended as if their lives depended on it and the North Africans were guilty of missing chances with 18 attempts and two-thirds possession. Not to worry, there were two games to go and time to locate shooting boots. And not just that with four of the six best-performing third-placed teams in the group stage going through; there was surely little danger.

Then came a 1-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea ranked at 114 and making just a third appearance at the tournament. This was awful, without urgency or creativity, and there is a suspicion that star-studded Algeria seriously underestimated a national team representing a country of only 1.4 million. The champs could barely string a pass together and Mahrez, this season’s top scorer at Manchester City — a team thought by many to be the best in the world — was ineffective to the point of invisibility.

There was still another chance in the final game. Victory over Ivory Coast could even see Algeria finish top of the group. There was no danger of that as the champions were second best for most of the game. A lack of discipline, concentration and basic marking at the back allowed Ivory Coast to collect what was ultimately a comfortable win. At times, Algeria looked like they could get back in the game but never really had the conviction that they could do it. From the get-go, the body language was a concern and heads seemed to drop as soon as the first goal went in. Algeria were outworked and outfought.

Mahrez was the symbol and his performances, or lack of, came in for questions in the post-match inquest. Belmadi can be as combative as a coach as he was as a player for Marseille and Manchester City and hit back at journalists.

“Don’t go and point the finger at players who have given you so much happiness,” Belmadi said. “When things are not going well you start to point the finger at him or me. Did you want me to drop him to the bench? I didn’t change things. I left him in the team.”

For Belmadi, it is an unwelcome reminder of the 2015 Asian Cup. In Australia, he was in charge of Qatar and they arrived in good form and with high hopes. Then they lost all three games Down Under but this was worse as Algeria were the title-holders. In 2015, he didn’t last long as Qatar boss, but has enough credit in the bank to survive this time — however now it all comes down to the final World Cup qualification play-off in March.

“We will have to pick ourselves up, digest this, analyze it and lift our heads up. The World Cup awaits and we will need to do better,” Belmadi said.

The 2021 African Cup of Nations will forever be a painful memory for Algeria. It remains to be seen if it marks the start of a dark period or serves as a wake-up call and inspires the team to qualify for Qatar and then go on to show the world what they are made of. 

For now though, Algeria, who basked in the glory of their 2019 success, will have to deal with a very different feeling.

“This is something we have to swallow,” said Belmadi. “It is hard for us because we are not used to losing. It is a bitter taste. It is horrible.”

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