Two heavyweights of African football will do battle for a place in the Africa Cup of Nations final on Sunday when Algeria take on Nigeria in Cairo.
Algeria have demonstrated signs of impressive resurgence in this tournament following a difficult couple of years during which they were knocked out in the group stages of the 2017 tournament and failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Nigeria, on the other hand, will consider reaching the semi-final to be a bare minimum requirement given the Super Eagles’ incredible heritage in this tournament, reaching the last four on seven occasions since 2000.
Algeria were not among the hot favourites to succeed in this competition after what has been a turbulent couple of years for the Desert Foxes.
The North African side failed to win a single group game in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, finishing third behind Senegal and Tunisia, and found themselves bottom of their group during 2018 World Cup qualifying – a stark contrast to when they reached the 2010 and 2014 finals.
However, the appointment of former midfielder
Djamel Belmadi in November 2018 has completely changed Algeria’s fortunes, with the new manager still unbeaten after 11 games at the helm.
Their form at this tournament has been particularly impressive from a defensive point of view, conceding just one goal in five games – an equaliser scored by Ivory Coast in a quarter-final which Algeria should have won comfortably.
Belmadi’s side began the game in dominant fashion, opening the scoring on 20 minutes through a sharp first-time finish in the box from Galatasaray forward Sofiane Feghouli, and should have put the game to bed with a second-half penalty which number nine Baghdad Bounedjah thudded against the bar.
Ivory Coast punished Algeria’s profligacy by scoring an excellent goal on the break, but the latter continued to pose a threat in extra-time and would have felt vindicated by their penalty shootout victory .
Speaking ahead of the game, Ivory Coast boss
Ibrahim Kamara stressed that Algeria’s threat extended far beyond the dazzling skill of Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez.
Indeed, a crucial aspect of Algeria’s success in this tournament – which they have not won since 1990 – has been the sturdiness of central defenders
Djamel Benlamri and Aissa Mandi , shielded competently by the highly experienced Adlene Guedioura .
Nigeria did not perform particularly well in the 2-1 quarter-final success over South Africa, but William Troost-Ekong ‘s late winner was an example of how their sheer pedigree in this tournament can sometimes be enough to get them over the line.
Their record under manager Gernot Rohr, who has managed in Africa since 2010, is seriously intimidating, losing to an African side on just two occasions over the last three years.
One of those defeats came in their final group game against Madagascar , during which Rohr rested several players given that Nigeria had already qualified for the knockout stages.
Since that loss, the Super Eagles have progressed to the last four through a pair of pulsating encounters with Cameroon and South Africa, coming from behind to beat the former 3-2 and knocking out the latter – who had beaten hosts Egypt to reach the quarters – through a late bundled finish from a corner by defender Troost-Ekong.
Nigeria started the quarter-final strongly and went ahead through a quick flowing move involving former Leicester City winger Ahmed Musa and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, whose smart jink down the left-hand channel opened up the space for Samuel Chukwueze to score.
However, such passages of dominant attacking play have been rare for Nigeria, especially in the two knockout games played so far, where they were comfortably eclipsed by both Cameroon and South Africa when it came to the share of possession and number of passes completed.
This Nigeria team under Rohr, known for his strong emphasis on organisation and discipline, does not possess the same individual flair as seen during the days of Sunday Oliseh , Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu, but their dogged spirit and knowledge of this competition makes them a very challenging opponent under tense semi-final conditions.