ALGERIA coach, George Leekens is taking nothing for granted when his side take on Zimbabwe in the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) Group B opener at Stade de Franceville, Franceville in Gabon, on Sunday.
The North Africans are ranked fifth on the continent, compared to the Warriors’ 30th, and are blessed with an array of stars such as Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez, the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the BBC African Footballer of the Year and Glo African Player of the Year.
Zimbabwe appears to be the weakling of the group, which also has the continent’s first and fourth-ranked sides Senegal and Tunisia, respectively.
While statistics show that Zimbabwe is the sick men of the group, Leekens is wary of the threat posed by t Kalisto Pasuwa’s men.
Speaking to Cafonline, the Belgian, who appears to know very little about Zimbabwe, said their opening match is a potential banana skin.
“The match against Zimbabwe will be crucial,” he said. “Everyone is talking about Tunisia and Senegal, but I think we need to be very wary of this team. I see it as a very tough game. I know the Tunisia team well because I was coaching there not so long ago. I know pretty-much everything there is to know about their players. They’re a strong side and they’ve been playing well these last few months. It’s going to be a special match for both countries, given the fact we’re neighbours. That’s why the fans are talking about it so much.”
As for Senegal, Leekens identified them as the group favourites: “The Senegalese play good football. I want to win our first two matches and make sure of qualification before we play them. I don’t honestly think we’ll beat them. It’s going to be a very tough match come what may.”
With stars such as Mahrez, his Leicester teammate, Islam Slimani and Watford’s Adlene Guedioura, the Algerians are among the favourites to go on and win the tournament.
“We want to win this tournament and take part in the Confederations Cup, but all I’m thinking about right now is negotiating our first match well against Zimbabwe and then the second against Tunisia. As far as I’m concerned, these are our two biggest games at the start of this year.”
Leekens said he would be looking for a quick goal against Zimbabwe.
“We need to try and get the first goal. The important thing is not to chase after the ball in the opposition’s half, but to make sure we don’t squander the chances that come our way and that we don’t give goals away. The only way we’re going to win at the highest level is by addressing those kinds of issues.
Pasuwa is targeting upsets at the continental showcase and wants to see his team progress to the quarterfinals.
Zimbabwe arrived in Gabon yesterday after their training camp in Cameroon, where they also played an international friendly against the hosts, which ended in a 1-all draw. Zimbabwe put up a good performance full of resilience, which has given hope to their fans.
Meanwhile, Algeria received a major blow yesterday ahead of the Warriors match when Bologna midfielder Saphir Taider sustained a groin injury in training on Wednesday just ahead of their departure to Franceville.
According to the Algeria football federation, Taider was involved in a training ground clash with his fellow teammate and the medical staff have concluded the injuries he suffered rule him out of the tournament.
Arsenal’s 19-year old Ismael Bennacer has been called up to replace Taider.
The match kicks off at 6pm Zimbabwe time