With the picture of Algeria's 2014 World Cup performance still etched in our heads, it is understandable that Algeria would be feared by any team. The fact that it took World Champion Germany overtime to overcome Algeria in Brazil tells the story of a team that is quite capable. But is that really the true story of this Algerian team?
At the other end is the Nigerian team that has failed to reach the Cup of African Nations finals for two consecutive competitive cycles? The same question asked of the current state of Algeria's team must also be asked of Nigeria.
This piece proceeds to address those questions focusing not just on the teams' current state of readiness but it also takes look at plausible psychological indices that may largely determine the result of the game on November 12 in Uyo, Nigeria.
The Current State of the Teams
There is temptation to compare the two teams by looking at: (1) their current FIFA rankings where Algeria stands tall at No. 3 in Africa and well ahead of Nigeria at No. 11 in Africa, or (2) the results of their previous meetings, or (3) the general ease in which Algeria has recently handled qualification matches compared to Nigeria's performances at qualification matches.
All three measures have their place in attempting to unpack what promises to be a galactic confrontation on November 12. But I sense that none of those three measures will matter in the end. Why? They hardly reflect the current state of either team.
Therefore, let's look at a fourth measure i.e. how has Algeria played more recently in more appropriate and comparable situations and how has Nigeria played. Algeria will be in Uyo, Nigeria for an away international. In Algeria's last five away internationals, it has won two, drawn two, and lost one! But who did Algeria play in those five games? Two of the away wins came against Lesotho. The loss? It came against Qatar. I bet no team worth its salt will be shaking in its boots hearing names of those teams. The draws? Both came against Ethiopia.
How about Nigeria, at home, in its last five games? Nigeria has won four of those with a draw against Egypt. Again, not particularly impressive when one realizes that the wins came against none of the highly ranked African teams nor was any of those wins a blow out of the opponent.
So what gives? My answer is that similar to the previous three measures, this fourth measure will not do much for us because there have been major changes for both teams in the last few days and months. For Nigeria, the arrival of a new coach in Gernot Rohr has the team playing with a new belief signaled by an important 2-1 away win in Zambia. For Algeria, a poor home result (1-1) against Cameroon led to resignation of Coach Rejavac and appointment of Leekens who's first game will be in Uyo. Advantage? Nigeria.
The Plausible Psychological Challenges
So how about the tactical battle? Sure, tactics will matter and Leekens is likely going to focus on a defensive strategy with an eye on quick counters in search of three points or at worst a point. However, Algeria has not been a team to do this in recent times and this was partly reason for the ouster of Rejavac who called for a more disciplined approach. Nigeria, of course, would attack but under a cautionary approach, particularly in funneling the dangerous Algerian wide players to the middle where Nigeria has a reliable central defense and solid defensive midfielders.
However, this game will hardly be decided by tactical maneuvers. The decision will come from the psychological state of both teams at various critical moments of the game. Presently, Algeria has a significant amount of self-doubt, while Nigeria come in with a nice dose of self-belief. However, neither of those psychological outlooks last eternally. They will be dynamic and would likely switch around the further the game goes on without Nigeria establishing a lead or with Algeria going ahead. Therefore, Nigeria's best bet is to score within the opening hour of the game and not to concede within that period. With the home crowd in play, Nigeria has the advantage.
Importantly, the psychological challenge is not only going to be decided by game moments and time towards goal. For individual players, there will be challenges particularly for Echiejile at left back and whoever Nigeria puts at right back. Echiejile must receive support against Mahyrez and have the ability to force him to the middle. His success in doing so early will be a bonus for Nigeria. The same issues occur for Nigeria's right back. Inability to force Algerian wide players to cut in to the middle will make crosses available and Algeria has proven deadly in the air with headers at goal.
Nigeria's early domination, which has a high probability of occurrence based on the psychological state of the two teams will be dictated through the middle and the confidence of the midfielders. With that and a lead within the opening hour, Nigeria will be on its way to three points. That is what the November 12 battle will be about. A battle of the mind and confidence.