Algeria coach wary of outsiders Zimbabwe
Virtually all the pre-2017 Africa Cup of Nations talk about Group B has concerned which two countries from Algeria, Senegal and Tunisia will advance to the quarter-finals.
Zimbabwe, who complete the quartet based in southeastern Gabonese city Franceville, have been dismissed as no-hopers in a section featuring three of the top five ranked African teams.
The Senegalese headed the monthly FIFA listings released this week with the Tunisians fourth, the Algerians fifth, and the Zimbabweans a distant 30th.
Recently appointed Algeria coach Georges Leekens has warned, however, that his ‘Desert Foxes’ dare not underestimate the ‘Warriors’, the lone qualifiers from southern Africa.
Algeria confront Zimbabwe Sunday in the first half of a double-header at the 20,000-seat Stade de Franceville, followed by Senegal against Tunisia.
“All the Algerian media and public are talking about is Senegal and Tunisia,” acknowledged experienced Belgium-born Leekens, “but I am thinking only of Zimbabwe.
“I know they had some pre-tournament problems regarding bonuses, but the Cup of Nations history is littered with teams who have defied off-field problems to succeed.
“Zimbabwe travelled to Cameroon this week and drew 1-1 in a warm-up match — that was an impressive result against a country that have been African champions four times.
“I view our game against them as a tough challenge. We need to apply our minds 100 percent to how we are going to conquer Zimbabwe.”
Leekens has good reason to respect the ‘Warriors’ as they triumphed 2-1 in the only previous Cup of Nations clash between the countries.
Many pundits see Algeria as potential successors to 2015 African champions the Ivory Coast, especially with new African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez among their stars.
But Algeria have won the Cup of Nations only once, and that was when they hosted a then eight-team tournament 27 years ago.
They started the 2015 tournament in Equatorial Guinea as title favourites only to be fall 3-1 to the Ivorians in the quarter-finals with Wilfried Bony bagging a brace.
While there are questions about the Algerian defence, Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi provide midfield creativity and Islam Slimani and El Arabi Hillel Soudani are potent strikers.
Zimbabwe also look threatening up front with Knowledge Musona scoring regularly in Belgium and Khama Billiat starring for 2016 CAF Champions League winners Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa.
Senegal are another country being touted as potential champions, not least because they possess consistent scorers like Sadio Mane of Liverpool and Keita Balde of Lazio.
However, the Teranga Lions came to Gabon in 2012 and Equatorial Guinea in 2015 with equally star-stacked squads and flopped.
They lost all three group games on the first occasion and won only one two years ago to make another timid early exit.
Tunisia may lack big-name footballers, but have not lost to Senegal in four previous Africa Cup clashes.
Goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi ranks among the best in Africa and Aymen Abdennour from La Liga strugglers Valencia is a classy defender.
Further forward, midfielder Youssef Msakni scores regularly while Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak hopes a lack of game time at Sunderland will not dilute the threat posed by striker Wahbi Khazri.
With the general media consensus being that Algeria will win Group B, Senegal and Tunisia could well be playing for a place in the knockout phase.
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