GIVE THE ALGERIANS THIS: THEY MIGHT BE THE WEAKEST AFRICAN TEAM (OTHER THAN THE HOSTS) IN THE WORLD CUP, BUT THEY KNOW HOW TO KEEP THINGS INTERESTING. THEIR PATH to South Africa was arguably the most dramatic, culminating as it did with Antar Yahia's brilliant volley for a 1-0 victory in the tiebreaker last November against Algeria's most heated rival, Egypt.
The two countries, which have a long history of matches marred by crowd (and occasional on-field) violence, met again in January in the semifinals of the Africa Cup of Nations (ACN), and the result underscored the problems the Algerians will face in South Africa. Outclassed for much of the game, Algeria self-destructed, having three players sent off (including goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi, who head-butted the referee for the first of his two yellow cards) in a 4-0 loss. If the Desert Foxes are to be competitive in their first World Cup appearance in 24 years, they will need to be far more consistent and disciplined, because they can't get by on talent alone.
Algeria struggled offensively in the ACN, scoring only four goals in six games. Manager Rabah Saadane—who was in charge of the Algerian side when it made its last World Cup, in 1986—often used a 4-5-1 with Abdelkader Ghezzal as the lone striker. If the formation proved anything, it's that Ghezzal, who plays for Siena in Italy's Serie A, can't man the attack alone. He was shut out in the tournament and has scored only twice in his last 13 games for his country.
The squad received a boost in March when Mehdi Lacen made his long-awaited debut in a friendly against Serbia. The French-born defensive midfielder, who plays for Racing Santander in La Liga, had turned down several invitations to play for Algeria, where his father was born. He'll provide stability on the pitch, but his inclusion in the lineup will likely come at the expense of captain Yazid Mansouri.
Algeria's most consistently threatening player is Nadir Belhadj, a dashing left back who functions more like a winger, but he has been suspended from Algeria's opening game because he was ejected from the ACN match against Egypt. Although Belhadj plays his club soccer for Portsmouth, the worst team in the Premiership, Barcelona is rumored to want him.
Before the loss to Egypt in January, Algeria knocked out the vaunted Ivory Coast 3-2. But there's a big difference between springing an upset and being consistently dangerous. Don't be surprised if Algeria snatches a point against the U.S. or England, but advancing is a long shot.