Football Features

Afcon 2019: Five things we learned as Algeria’s Mahrez gamble pays off to send Zaha’s Ivory Coast home

By CJ Smith

Published: 20:03, 11 July 2019

Algeria beat the Ivory Coast 4-3 on penalties to advance to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals.

An action-packed game saw no fewer than 42 fouls between the two sides, with the result swinging from side to side as if on the edge of a knife.

But ultimately, it is Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria who advance and Wilfried Zaha’s Ivory Coast who head home after a nail-biting penalty shootout.

Here are five things we learned from this fascinating tie in Suez.

1. Zaha in the thick of it

If the Ivory Coast were to have a chance of overcoming Algeria on Thursday, Wilfried Zaha would obviously need to play a big part.

Indeed, the Crystal Palace star was well involved, although not always for the reasons Ibrahima Kamara would have liked.

The 26-year-old fizzed a few decent efforts at Rais M’bolhi’s goal and tried his best to be a creative spark for his teammates, but it was the other side of the game which really defined Zaha’s performance.

Although he was provoked, Zaha was lucky not to see red when first reacting to a robust challenge on him from Djamel Benlamri, then retaliating to a push from Ramy Bensebaini.

Bensebaini later grabbed hold of Zaha’s arm and tried to simulate the winger hitting him in the face and as pathetic as the whole affair was, it seemed to get under the skin of the Ivory Coast’s star man for some time before he finally recovered his composure with an assist for Jonathan Kodjia’s equaliser.

2. Algeria resistance finally broken

Algeria have mixed attacking flair with unflappable defensive resilience during Afcon 2019 and prior to Thursday’s clash, were yet to concede a single goal.

And for long spells of this quarter-final, it looked as if that record would remain intact, restricting the likes of Zaha and Max Gradel to speculative efforts from the edge of the box.

However, Les Éléphants grew in confidence following Baghdad Bounedjah’s penalty miss and after Zaha wriggled free in midfield, he set Kodjia away to equalise just after the hour mark.

It took more than four-and-a-half games and Rais M’bolhi probably should have saved it, but the Algeria rearguard was finally breached.

3. Bounedjah’s costly misses

Bounedjah scored a phenomenal 39 goals in 22 games for Al-Sadd last season en route to winning the Qatar Stars League and headed into Afcon 2019 in red hot form.

However, against the Ivory Coast, the 27-year-old was unable to add to his one goal at the tournament so far, although it certainly wasn’t for a lack of chances.

The first half saw both he and Riyad Mahrez foiled with some last-ditch defending from the Ivory Coast, while the second half saw Bounedjah spurn a number of headers, one-on-ones and half-chances.

The pick of the bunch, though, was his penalty miss just after half time. After being felled himself by goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo, Bounedjah stepped up to seal the game for Algeria and fire them into the semi-finals. Instead, he hammered the ball into the crossbar and over, leaving him visibly distraught and destroying his confidence.

Bounedjah was replaced by Islam Slimani on 78 minutes with tears filling his eyes at the fear his penalty miss may cost his nation semi-final glory. He then had to suffer the agony of watching on as extra time and a penalty shootout were played out, with Algeria winning to spare him a sleepless night and villainy.

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4. Dark arts

At times, this was one of the more entertaining games of Afcon 2019, with two highly talented teams going head-to-head for a place in the semi-finals. However, as has been the case throughout this tournament, it was littered with niggly fouls all over the pitch.

The likes of Benlamri and Bensebaini tried their best to get under Zaha’s skin for the majority of the game, with some unsavoury tactics and robust challenges.

Zaha just about managed to keep his cool, but his own teammates were no better, leaving their mark on Algeria and making sure they gave just as good as they got throughout.

This resulted in an often stop-start match where the referee had to be at his most alert to keep a lid on tempers.

The final foul count? Ivory Coast 21-21 Algeria.

5. Mahrez gamble pays off… just

Although he hadn’t been at his most influential, the decision to sub Mahrez five minutes from the end of the regulation 90 minutes was certainly a bold one from Djamel Belmadi.

The Man City man had still picked up some dangerous positions and looked well capable of threading a decisive pass, if his teammates were alert enough to make the right run.

The timing of his substitution left Algeria without their main man for the whole of extra time and although Mahrez’s replacement, the speedy Adam Ounas, caused Ivory Coast problems, the game ultimately went to penalties.

Belmadi’s gamble was just barely vindicated with Algeria winning the penalty shootout, Ounas himself netting the fourth penalty along the way. Now, Algeria are left with a fit and healthy Mahrez for the semi-finals, well-rested after sitting out extra time.