TFN’s Hugo Greenhalgh believes that Islam Slimani and Yacine Brahimi can provide the basis for further Algerian success…
After producing one of the great World Cup surprises, two of Algeria’s international stars had a week to remember in the Champions League. Islam Slimani and Yacine Brahimi, now playing for Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon and Porto respectively, have continued to shine after enjoying impressive showings in Brazil. Slimani was on the scoresheet at both ends in Sporting’s 4-2 win against Schalke, while Brahimi scored one and assisted another in Porto’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao.
Both players were instrumental for Algeria as they qualified for the knockout rounds of the World Cup for the first time in their history. Slimani scored against Russia and South Korea, and was immense in their last 16 game against Germany in which he was unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for offside. There were plenty of offers for him after the World Cup and Slimani pushed for a move. However, Sporting held firm and the striker has since apologised for his behaviour.
When Slimani was still at CR Belouizdad in Algiers and angling for a move to Europe, Portuguese coach Mariano Barreto billed him as a cross between Mario Jardel and Liédson. This was high praise indeed. In Portugal, Jardel is far from the laughing stock he was at Bolton and is fondly remembered for winning the European Golden Boot in 1998-99 and 2001-02. Liédson was also a Sporting legend who scored 173 goals in 313 games for the Lisbon side. While such heights may be a little way off for Slimani, he has started the season strongly with 5 goals in 11 appearances.
Meanwhile, Porto’s Brahimi turned heads this summer in his role as an attacking midfielder. He now has three goals in three games for the Portuguese champions, including this spectacular effort against Nacional. He too was one of Algeria’s standout players and this week was nominated for BBC African Footballer of the Year, recognition for his World Cup performance. Brahimi was a graduate from the Clairefontaine academy and played for France at youth level before switching his nationality in order to represent Algeria, the country of his parents’ birth.
Christian Gourcuff, father of Lyon midfielder Yoann, has taken over as manager from Vahid Halilhodzic and inherits a young side full of promise. Slimani and Brahimi are just two of an exciting ensemble of attacking talent. Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli is joined by Inter’s Saphir Taider, Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez and Bastia’s Ryad Boudebouz – all providing the ammunition for Dinamo Zagreb’s explosive striker El Arbi Soudani. Following his emergence at Tottenham last season, 19-year-old Nabil Bentaleb provides a calm head on young shoulders in midfield and Medhi Abeid will hope his impressive Premier League debut for Newcastle has not gone unnoticed by Gourcuff.
Algeria are unbeaten in their qualifying group for the African Cup of Nations and face Ethiopia on Saturday and Mali next Wednesday. They will surely be one of the favourites for a tournament they have not won since 1990, when they hosted it themselves. That Algerian side featured another great plying his trade in Portugal. Rabah Madjer was arguably Algeria’s greatest ever player and had two spells at Porto. He finished his time there with 50 goals in 108 appearances and is best remembered for his equaliser against Bayern Munich in the 1987 European Cup Final. He then set up the winner for Porto to win 2-1 and seal their first European cup.
Although Slimani and Brahimi et al. have some way to go to reach the heights of Madjer, their quality is undeniable. Regular football in a competitive division in Portugal as well as facing opponents of a higher standard in the Champions League is great preparation to raise the bar for their national team. Gourcuff’s side has a young, hungry core and is bellied by more experienced heads at the back, with goalkeeper Raïs M’Bolhi and centre backs Madjid Bougherra and Rafik Halliche providing a solid spine. This could prove a winning combination in what is set to be an exciting African Cup of Nations.