World Cup play-offs: Algeria under pressure ahead of Cameroon clash

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Algeria coach Djamel BelmadiAlgeria coach Djamel is under pressure from fans and media to lead the team to the 2022 World Cup finals

There is palpable tension on the streets of Algiers ahead of Algeria's crucial 2022 World Cup qualifying tie against Cameroon.

The two African heavyweights both missed the 2018 edition in Russia and are desperate to make an appearance in Qatar this November.

A few months ago, Algeria would have been seen as clear favourites. Heading into the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations as defending champions, a 35-match unbeaten streak came to an end in embarrassing fashion as the North Africans were eliminated in the group stage without winning a game.

The catastrophic showing in Cameroon, including a goalless draw with Sierra Leone and a 1-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea, halted any momentum and plunged the Fennecs into uncertainty.

That tension came to the fore on Sunday morning at coach Djamel Belmadi's pre-match press conference.

Two journalists, known for asking tough and sometimes critical questions of Algerian Football Federation officials, were barred from entering the conference room. Then, when another asked the coach why Charleroi midfielder Adem Zorgane had not been selected, Belmadi snapped.

"Have you ever played football? You don't have the physique of a footballer or even of an athlete to tell me that he (Zorgane) deserves to be called up," the coach demanded.

"Stay in your places, you are no one to tell me that he deserves (to be called up)."

Africa Cup of NationsAlgeria went from winning the Africa Cup of Nations to failing to get out of the group stage two years later

Belmadi's press conferences have always been media spectacles, but observers noted that this one in particular was more tense than usual.

"There is nervousness in the air, and sometimes for trivial matters," Yazid Ouahib, one of Algeria's veteran journalists, told Jeune Afrique.

"For example, when the press revealed that the national team was going to spend a few days in Malabo before travelling to Cameroon, the coach was very irritated…even though it was not revelatory information."

In addition to the jibes with national media, uncertainty has manifested itself in Belmadi's selection, with six changes made from the 2021 Afcon squad.

One man making a return is 36-year-old midfielder Adlene Guedioura - a fixture in Algeria's 2019 Nation Cup run - despite playing just a handful of matches this season for Burton Albion in the third-tier of English football.

Other regulars that were left out are Al Sadd striker Baghdad Bounedjah and West Ham livewire Said Benrahma.

Instead, Belmadi preferred to hand 32-year-old Qatar-based striker Mohamed Benyettou an international debut, also recalling Besiktas winger Rachid Ghezzal in attack.

"This list is made to qualify for the 2022 World Cup," Belmadi summarised succinctly.

Stability under Belmadi

A dejected Riyad Mahrez after Algeria crashed out of the 2021 Africa Cup of NationsAlgeria captain Riyad Mahrez and his team crashed out of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in the group stage

For players such as Riyad Mahrez, Sofiane Feghouli, Aissa Mandi and Islam Slimani, who all emerged before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the coming matches are do-or-die.

Their "golden generation" shocked the world by pushing future champions Germany to extra time in the round of 16, but instability at the coaching level seemed to have squandered much of that talent.

Belmadi's arrival in 2018 turned the ship around.

Following the 2019 Nations Cup triumph in Egypt, Belmadi held a meeting with his senior players, with everyone essentially agreeing to make the 2022 World Cup their primary objective.

"Experiencing a World Cup in the country where I started coaching, I see that as a sign of destiny," Belmadi declared last November.

The manager still lives in Qatar, where he spent eight years coaching before taking the Algeria job.

During his time there, he had stints in charge of Lekhwiya (now known as Al Duhail) and the Qatari national team - winning four league championships and one Gulf Cup of Nations.

Yet, the date with destiny is only attainable if Algeria put to the sword an Indomitable Lions side dealing with their own bout of instability at coaching level.

After a 3rd place finish at a Nations Cup on home soil in February, the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot) president Samuel Eto'o insisted on dismissing Portuguese coach Antonio Conceicao and hiring former teammate Rigobert Song.

Song will be without Napoli midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo-Anguissa and Young Boys winger Moumi Ngamaleu through injury.

On Tuesday morning, Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana escaped unscathed from a serious car accident and looks set to play in the upcoming matches.

Ironically, the first leg will take place at the Japoma stadium in Douala, the venue for all three of Algeria's failures at this year's Cup of Nations.

"We are not traumatised by Japoma stadium…we were traumatised by the pitch at Japoma stadium," quipped Belmadi upon learning of the location of the match.

The return leg will take place at the Stade Mustapha Tchaker in Blida, where Algeria have never lost a competitive match, a streak that dates back to 2004 and spans more than 40 matches.

Should that record come to an end, and Algeria fail to make the World Cup, the tough questions - and the pressure - will keep mounting for Belmadi and his team.

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