Friendlies provide lessons and questions for African giants

  • Africa’s top team sets new record for games unbeaten
  • Algeria shine, Morocco with work to do, Tunisia seeking dynamism
  • Aforementioned trio preparing for Qatar 2022 qualifiers and the FIFA Arab Cup

The second half of 2021 promises to be a busy one for many teams from the Arab world, with the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ in Asia and Africa, as well as the inaugural edition of the FIFA Arab Cup to be held in Qatar at the end of the year.

Indeed, with a qualifying round for this new tournament taking place in the coming days, and AFC teams engaged in Qatar 2022 qualifying, several Arab teams without either of those obligations took advantage of the international window to play friendlies. This was the case for the likes of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, who all had useful lessons ahead of their forthcoming challenges.

A record and confidence boost for Les Fennecs

Undefeated since November 2018, current CAN Africa Cup of Nations champions Algeria seem well equipped for the challenges ahead.

But coach Djamel Belmadi is not one to rest on his laurels and impressed on his squad the importance of their games against Mauritania, Mali and Tunisia. “These friendlies are far from being insignificant for me, since they’ll be decisive for the next FIFA Ranking. Our goal is to maintain our position among the continent’s top five, so as to have home advantage for the return leg of a potential [third round] play-off for the 2022 World Cup,” he announced.

Mission accomplished so for Belmadi’s charges, who strung together three straight wins: 4-1 against Mauritania, 1-0 against Mali, and – most significantly – 2-1 in Tunisia. The sequence also enabled Algeria to set a new record (27) for games unbeaten by an African team, surpassing that of Côte d’Ivoire (26). Better still, victory in the Maghreb derby, allowed Les Fennecs to move ahead of their neighbours in their head-to-head, with a 16th victory in 44 meetings compared to 15 for Tunisia and 13 draws.

“This unbeaten run means a lot, principally because it shows how consistent we’ve been since being crowned African champions in 2019 and how we got right back to work on delivering big performances. The credit must go to the players, who’ve worked hard to beat this record,” said their coach after the victory in Rades. “Of course, it won’t be easy to keep the run going, especially as everyone is waiting to take us down.”

The three games also allowed Belmadi to experiment with his squad, giving opportunities to central defenders Ahmed Touba and Abdelkader Bedrane, who showed that they could fill in for regulars Djamel Benlamri and Aissa Mandi. Ramiz Zerrouki and Haris Belkebla also impressed, while Riyad Mahrez showed once again how important his skill and experience are in big moments. The Manchester City striker, absent against Mauritania, grabbed the only goal of the game against Mali, and his side’s second against Tunisia after Baghdad Bounedjah opened the scoring.

Ramiz Zerrouki (L) of Algeria in action against Mali

Carthage Eagles still hopeful despite setback

For their part, Tunisia confirmed their standing as a force in African and Arab football with two wins – over Congo DR (1-0) and Mali (1-0) – from their three friendlies, cementing their place as the second-best African team in the FIFA Ranking. Without influential midfielders Youssef Msakni and Ferjani Sassi, the team struggled a good deal in the face of Algeria’s pressing and dynamism, unsurprisingly going down despite a committed and tenacious response in the second half.

And while this strength of character was not enough to turn around a Maghreb derby, it did help Mondher Kebaier’s men triumph over Congo DR a few days earlier, thanks to a solitary goal from Naim Sliti on the stroke of half time, and to do the same against Mali yesterday courtesy of an Anis Ben Slimane strike on 90 minutes.

Among the positives to take from those fixtures is the solid start in a Tunisia shirt for Manchester United forward Hannibal Mejbri. The 18-year-old provides an additional attacking option for a team who have been lacking a bit in that department despite the best efforts of Wahbi Khazri.

Atlas Lions effective if unspectacular

Last but not least, Morocco had only two matches during the international window, but both were tough opponents. Against Ghana (1-0) and then Burkina Faso (1-0), Vahid Halilhodzic’s men did what was required with two wins without dazzling particularly.

The Atlas Lions were grateful to some of their leading lights, namely a composed and dependable Yacine Bounou in goal, and influential attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech, who lit up proceedings after coming on against the Black Stars and set up the winner for Jawad El Yamiq. Also decisive was Ashraf Hakimi, who scored the only goal of the match against the Stallions with a free-kick.

The team’s Bosnian coach will have been please to see two solid performances from his side despite many changes, with only Adel Taarabt, Romain Saiss, Hakimi and Youssef En-Nesyri making the starting XI for both fixtures. “Between now and September, we have to become much more efficient and determined for our qualifying games,” warned the coach after their second match, despite the two victories.

CAF’s qualification groups for Qatar 2022

Preliminary qualifying draw (CAF)

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