LUANDA, January 25 – Up until Sunday Fabio Capello's England must have been rubbing their hands at having been drawn with Algeria in their World Cup first round group.Rabah Saadane’s Desert Foxes had failed to make much of an imprint in their three Africa Cup of Nations first round games, limping into the quarter-finals after a dismal 3-0 loss to Malawi, a 1-0 win over Mali and a contentious goalless draw with hosts Angola.
But Algeria silenced their critics in no uncertain fashion with a superb 3-2 extra time win over Cup favourites Ivory Coast on Sunday night in Cabinda to send a clear message to their World Cup rivals – underestimate us at your peril.
The North Africans are drawn in the same World Cup first round group as England, the United States and Slovenia, and Saadane, a former defender with French side Rennes, believes this Angola dress rehearsal is proving an invaluable experience for South Africa.
Algeria are not the first team to start a competition like this slowly, gradually finding their stride as the competition progresses – witness France at the 2006 World Cup.
Raymond Domenech’s men looked down and out after a goalless draw against Switzerland and a 1-1 draw with South Korea, but then produced a performance seemingly from nowhere to knock out Spain in the second round, followed by wins over Brazil and Portugal to make it the final itself.
The similarity does not end there.
Domenech injected a ‘bunker mentality’ in his squad in Germany 2006, using all the criticism directed at his team to motivate his players.
Saadane has done the same, using the attacks by the Algerian media to trigger a positive response from his men.
Algeria wait now to find out whether it will be bitter rivals Egypt or Cameroon lining up alongside them in Thursday’s semi-final in Benguela as they move to within one game of making the final and a shot at their first title since 1990.
The surprise winners fell 2-1 behind on 89 minutes to a brilliant Abdulkader Keita goal only for Rangers defender Madjid Bougherra to level in stoppage time and unmarked substitute Hamer Bouazza headed a 92nd-minute far-post winner.
Saadane, in his fifth spell as Algeria manager, was assistant coach at the 1982 World Cup, and head coach at the 1986 World Cup when Algeria failed to make it out of the first round after a draw with Northern Ireland and losses to Brazil and Spain.
After Sunday’s quarter-final victory he said: "I am really happy. We came up with what we wanted.
"I wasn’t surprised by my team, but more by the decline of the Ivory Coast side. The critics said after we beat Mali (1-0) that we only scored goals from dead ball situations, well here we scored three goals from open play!"
Rangers defender Bougherra added: "Many people wrote our chances off. This victory is for the people of Algeria all over the world."
Man of the match Karim Matmour, who scored his country’s opening goal, said: "This wasn’t an easy match against a great team but we have qualified and what’s more qualified in style."
Saadane meanwhile played down fears of any repeat of the stormy and violent scenes that were triggered by their last three encounters against Egypt, should the defending champions emerge as their semi-final rivals.
"In our three games against Egypt everything passed off smoothly on the pitch. Youo have to stop talking about that (the animosity between the two countries)," he insisted.
The man who goes by the name of ‘Cheikh’ added: "I know my Algerian players are motivated by the big matches. We came here to win and we produced what we wanted."