Complete Sports' radio show, Sports Planet anchorman, TUNDE KOIKI, speaks to a certain Algerian sports journalist, Maher Mezahi ahead of the Super Eagles' 2018 World Cup qualifier against the Desert Foxes billed for Saturday, November 12 at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium Uyo.
Mezahi, an authority on the news about the Algerian national football team, reveals details of the Algerian team's preparedness for the battle of Uyo. He also reflects the mood of Algerian fans back home as the big match beckons.
Sports Planet: Maher, thank you for finding time to talk to us.
Maher Mezahi: Thanks for having me, it's a pleasure.
Super Eagles will be facing old friends the Fennecs of Algeria on Saturday. What's the mood like in Algiers ahead of this match?
The mood is very tense. There are lots of people that are very nervous in Algeria and that's for a few reasons. Obviously, there're lots of uncertainties and instability surrounding the Algerian national team at the moment as they appointed a third coach this calendar year. A lot of that is due again to rumours that the players have too much powers and they force a lot of the coaches to resign. So if you factor that in and combine with the fact that we drew our match at home to Cameroon and we are going away to Nigeria in a very tough match, a lot of people are nervous, uncertain and uneasy.
We are hearing that Algeria have so many injury concerns as well. The likes of Ahmed Ounas, Soudani and a few others would not be available and we also hear that a few others have been called up as well. Would this inspire any kind of confidence in the team and the federation?
The good news is that the players that are injured, and they are a fair few – five or six of them, non of them are sure starters except for Faouzi Ghoulam, our left-back who plays at Napoli who is struggling to be fit for the match and which would be a true blow. But other than that, the players who are injured are not exactly sure starters. So we are taking the same 11. We have some players who returned from defensive injuries. Nabil Bentaleb who was suspended in the last match too. Looks like we are going to have a fortified 11 in Uyo.
I have to tell you that Nigeria and Algeria are not strangers to each other. There've been 17 clashes between both teams at competitive level with Nigeria winning eight, drawing three and losing six. And the last time Nigeria lost to Algeria in a competitive match was in the final of the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations in Algiers. Tha's significant in some ways….
That was even before I was even alive. I can't even remember, it was a along time a go. Algeria's golden age was between 1980 and 1990. That was the decade where they really succeeded on the global and continental level. From 1990 to 2010, we really struggled all over the place and that was partly due to the civil war that plagued the country. But since then, we've picked up. Since 2010, we've qualified for two consecutive World Cups. We've been number one in the Africa FIFA rankings for some time now. I do remember as a young kid, Nigeria beat us 5-2, Obafemi Martins doing his back-flips. We don't generally do well against Nigeria, so it would be nice to get a result that would go our way for once.
Things are not all that rosy here in Nigeria and it is because of the fear of the Leicester City duo of Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani. How key will the two players be to Algeria's aspirations in that match?
They are central to any success Algeria would have. I know Nigerians would know the pair, especially now that Ahmed Musa is playing with them at Leicester. Simply put, Islam Slimani got into the national team in 2010 and from 2013 he's been phenomenal for us. I think he's our fourth highest goal scorer of all time and we expect him to top that chart by the time he retires. He gets a goal and assist in every match, and it's the same thing with Mahrez. Mahrez is not much of a goal scoring threat with Algeria and that is partly due to the tactics he plays. He is positioned a little further down the pitch. You could look for Mahrez to be more of a creative and productive threat and Slimani to obviously be the predator he always is , especially in the air.
Let me take you back to that issue regarding the player power in the Algerian national team camp. Some have attributed it to the fact that maybe the majority of the players were born in France and a kind of esprit de coup between them compared to those originally born in Algeria. Is there any truth in this?
It's difficult to tell and locate it and say this is the problem one way or the other. It's sure that the names that were given by the press are those born in France and who have been successful compared to those born in Algeria. So they tend to have more money, more success, more ego. But that said, I think it's too simplistic to narrow it down to the fact that because they are born abroad so they have a bad attitude. It's just a combination of factors. The fact that the former coach (Milovan Rajevac) didn't appoint his staff. The staff was already in place, and they were familiar with the fans and the federation. So the coach was coming as an outsider who didn't speak our language and that affected him as well.
This is the second time Georges Leekens is taking charge of the Algerian national team. What do you make of him and his tactics.?
Georges Leekens is somebody that is known by the Algerian public as you mentioned. He was our coach before and he got us to the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations before leaving for personal reasons. Leekens is somebody that knows Africa well. He coached in Tunisia and a few other places as well. He's a pragmatic manager, somebody that is a little bit defensive. Sometimes he plays with five defenders. He overloads the midfield, to try to suffocate any space that attacking teams would play with. So that's what you can expect from Leekens. I think he will play a central defender in the midfield, a 4-3-2-1 formation. He will try to limit the space that Nigeria will have in the central midfield.
Right now Algeria are on the backfoot. They are behind Nigeria. They really need to get a result in Uyo because considering the fact that Cameroon are hosting Zambia in the other game. What would represent a great result for you and what would represent a fair result?
I think a great result would be to get a win in Uyo. A result that will put us back on track and lift spirits. But I don't think it's going to happen. If I was a betting man, I would probably say that this match would end in a draw or Nigeria wins. Like I said, a great result would be a win. I don't think that's impossible, but a realistic result would be a draw in Uyo.
I mentioned Mahrez, Slimani, Fegholi for Algeria. Which Nigerian players are you particularly concerned about or the Algerian public are concerned about?
The Algerian public know Odion Ighalo. He plays with Adlene Guedioura at Watford. But they are concerned about the youngsters Nigeria have. That's at least, is what I'm concerned about. I'm concerned about Kelechi Iheanacho. I'm concerned about Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses and Simon Moses. I think these players are very dangerous and I think Gernot Rohr did a very good job of letting them play to their liberties, letting them express themselves. So I think those young attacking players are the ones that concerns me the most for Nigeria. That said, I think a lot of people look at your defence and your goalkeeping situation and believe goals can be scored against them.
Maher, thank you so much for your time.
It's my pleasure.
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