LUANDA, January 11- Playmaker Karim Ziani says Algeria must defeat Malawi Monday in the opening Group A match for both teams if they hope to reach the 2010 African Nations Cup knockout phase.
Hosts Angola and Mali complete the mini-league and media expectations suggest a tight three-way fight for two quarter-finals places with Malawi considered outsiders.
Veteran Germany-based Ziani has been a key figure in an Algerian revival that culminated in qualification for the 2010 World Cup at the expense of fierce rivals Egypt after a play-off.
The ‘Desert Foxes’ are also back at the Nations Cup after a two-tournament absence and the midfielder says he has never played in a stronger Algerian national team.
"So much depends on our first Cup match against Malawi. Victory is all that counts and we owe to ourselves and our nation to succeed," stressed Ziana to reporters.
"There is a lot more quality and mental strength in the squad now than when I started representing my country because many of our squad are playing regularly for first division clubs in Europe.
"When I first played for my country the majority of the squad were either reserves with first division sides or starting with second division clubs," he recalled.
While Algeria shared with Brazil the prize for Best 2009 FIFA rankings mover, Ziana says they cannot yet be compared with fellow World Cup qualifiers and Nations Cup contenders Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria.
"Those teams are still at a higher level than us. There is lots of work for us to do but with dedication you never know. This team is the strongest I have played in while wearing the green jersey."
Rabah Saadane, also coach of the ‘Foxes’ when they last qualified for the World Cup 24 years ago, says the draw for the 22-day tournament has offered his squad a realistic chance of making the last eight at least.
"It is a good draw, compared with those of Ivory Coast and Cameroon, which are very difficult. I think we have an excellent chance of reaching the quarter-finals."
Malawi, whipped 3-0 by Algeria during their only previous Nations Cup appearance in Ivory Coast 26 years ago, have produced warm-up results which defy the ‘whipping boys’ tag.
The Flames triumped 1-0 in Mozambique, snatched a late 1-1 away to Nations Cup holders Egypt, and drew 0-0 with Ghana in Swaziland to offer hope they can deliver more this time than the one point garnered from the 1984 campaign.
But it would be a shock if a country, almost half of whose squad plays for South African second-tier league clubs, dodges defeat at the new 50,000-seat November 11 Stadium.