Tuesday, June 22, 2010

ATH: Scouting Report -- Algeria

From the US National Team Players Association

Scouting Report: Algeria

By Clemente Lisi

Win and they’re in the final 16. For the never-say-die USA, it’s that simple. Standing in the way is Algeria, a team that has played inconsistently at this World Cup.

While the US is coming off a hard-fought 2-2 draw last Friday against Slovenia, Algeria also put on a strong showing in its scoreless tie against England the same day. The results put the USA’s destiny in its own hands, with a victory Wednesday at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria advancing the United States out of Group C.

“We’re going into our third game. We have no choice but to win,” Landon Donovan said after the Slovenia game.

The US is currently in second place with four points after a much-debated, controversial call by referee Koman Colibaly of Mali who disallowed a Maurice Edu goal with six minutes left. There is no doubt that FIFA's continued practice of allowing referees from less-established soccer countries to work World Cup games erased what would have been the greatest comeback in US soccer history. That, however, is another debate for another column.

Those emotional events have to be considered ancient history. The players need to move on and put this behind them if they hope to defeat Algeria. The Desert Foxes can be a better team than we’ve seen thus far. Against Slovenia in their first game, Algeria produced very little and came away with a 1-0 loss. On Friday, they were much more compact and their defense frustrated the English into submission.

Seventeen of the 23 players on the roster were born in France (former French star Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian descent, is working as an adviser) and the players have lots of experience playing in Europe’s biggest leagues. However, Algeria has been so inconsistent over the last two games that it will be difficult to prepare for them. For the US, it is a mystery which team will show up.

Before the impressive game against England, Algeria had followed the trend of other African nations at this World Cup by underachieving. Against England, the Algerians dominated possession and played strong defense, resuscitating their hopes of advancing and leaving England, the pre-tournament favorites, walking off the field amid a shower of boos in Cape Town.

“Algeria is a good team. They’re athletic, they’re good defensively, they made some big tackles during that game against England," Clint Dempsey told reporters. “We just have to play our game, keep moving the ball and trying different things, take our opportunities when we can.”

Algeria coach Rabah Saadane is likely to start 24-year-old shot-stopper Rais M’Bolhi, who made his international debut against England, while defenders Nadir Belhadj and Madjid Bougherra will provide strength and control in the back. Bougherra, a teammate of Edu’s and DaMarcus Beasley at Glasgow Rangers, has been exceptionally strong on the right side. Holding midfielder Medhi Lacen broke down England’s predictable plays every chance he got. Scoring against Algeria will be tough for the US as Wayne Rooney so harshly discovered.

The Algerian back line may be solid, but the team lacks offensive firepower (they have scored no goals so far), doing little to create concrete chances in the offensive third. Instead, Algeria’s strength comes in wearing down an opponent with physical play in the midfield and packing the defense. Michael Bradley is a teammate of the Algerian striker Karim Matmour at Borussia Monchengladbach. Matmour is agile and fast with a powerful right foot, but has shown very little at this tournament. He should be of very little concern to the US defense.

“I think we’ve been training for this for six months when we found out the draw, and we’ve been saying all along that we felt it was going to take three games to get through," Tim Howard told reporters. “A win the other day would have been great - maybe would have seen us through. But it’s not like we’re disappointed because we knew that if we played well throughout three games that we would get through the group so that’s still on our minds.”

At the same time, the US needs to avoid some of the pitfalls that have led to the two draws. They may not have had any control over a decision by a referee, but they can’t blame anyone but themselves for getting into a 2-0 hole. The Americans gave Slovenia too much space in the first half, allowing them to score the second goal after the defense was too disjointed. In the second half, the US put more power on the ball and used the wings to push forward into the Slovenian half. Set pieces were key for the US with Donovan doing an exceptional job on the right side.

The US is no stranger to mounting comebacks and getting results when they have their backs to the wall. They did it in World Cup Qualifying and at last year’s Confederations Cup. It’s that spirit that has made this team one of the most exciting to watch at this World Cup.

“We seem to play better when we’re behind and that’s all got to change,” Howard said.

In other words, the Americans need to dictate the pace and tempo against Algeria. The insertion of Edu and Benny Feilhaber in the second half against Slovenia helped create space in the middle, allowing Bradley to show why he is one of the world’s best midfielders with a performance worthy of a mention on the 2010 All-World Cup team.

The knockout stage starts a little earlier for the Americans. A win and they’re in. A doable goal against a beatable team.

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