By Greg Lalas, SI.com
Right midfielder Karim Ziani is a creative force to fear on the right side of midfield.
Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
Through April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Algeria. Click here for the full archive.
The emergence of a world-class attacker or two has raised hopes for Algeria, but the team's strength resides in the back, particularly in the trio of Madjid Boughera, Nadir Belhadj and Antar Yahia. Experienced and European-based, the three formed a solid defense that conceded only eight goals in 12 qualifying matches. Yahia's goal against Egypt in the special tiebreaker playoff in November clinched les Fennecs' place in South Africa, but class of the back line is 27-year-old Rangers center back Boughera, nicknamed "Magic." A gifted technical player who has been a fixture in the lineup since arriving at the Scottish powerhouse in 2008, he can start an attack directly from a defensive position.
If North Africa's only World Cup qualifier has any hope of advancing from Group C, right midfielder Karim Ziani has to be fit and on fire. Small, quick and fearless, the Wolfsburg dynamo constantly looks to skip past his marker. He has struggled to crack the starting lineup for his club, but one longtime coach in France tells SI.com, "If I were an opponent of Algeria, he is the main one I would watch out for."
None of coach Rabah Saadane's options up top will strike fear in the hearts of an opponent, but Abdelkader Ghezzal has some useful talents. The tall Siena forward has done well in Serie A and was joint top scorer on the team in qualifying. But can he do it in the World Cup's glare? This is the question, and one that has not been answered by his performances at the African Cup of Nations, particularly in the 3-0 loss to Malawi, when he was subbed off in the 59th minute.
Ghezzal's partner up top, Rafik Saïfi, is the sixth-leading scorer in Algerian history, but he'll be 35 in February and his recent move to Algerian side Al-Khor after a decade in France didn't go smoothly. The club released him due to all the time he was missing while with the national team, and doubts about his form and fitness will surely arise in the months leading up to the Cup.
What to watch for
What Algeria lacks in talent and World Cup experience, it makes up for in emotion. That pulsating one-game tiebreaker against Egypt bore witness to the team's -- and its rabid fans' -- desire and ambition to assert itself as a North African powerhouse. Then again, every team runs on emotion at the World Cup, and Algeria simply cannot match the talent of its Group C opponents.
Expect the 63-year-old Saadane, who also coached the Fennecs in their last World Cup appearance, in 1986, to employ a defensive strategy, founded on that cohesive back line. It may not be pretty, but an unfancied side can't worry about aesthetics. The bend-but-don't-break tactic will hope to spring Ziani and Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder Karim Matmour on the counterattack, or take advantage of set pieces, particularly aimed at the towering Boughera and Yahia.
Algeria reaching the knockout stage for the first time is hard to imagine. History and reputation are not on the Desert Foxes' side. In their World Cup debut in '82, they opened with wins against Spain and Chile, but then stumbled against Austria and failed to advance from the opening group stage. Four years later, they could manage only a draw before heading home. In South Africa, we'll most likely see a similar result, but a strong performance would earn Algeria some deserved respect.
Key match in group stage
June 13 vs. Slovenia. For the inexperienced Algerian squad, the opening game will determine everything. A good result -- and really, it must be a win -- against the other unknown entity in Group C will build the emotional Fennecs' confidence. A loss, with England up next, and the Algerians might as well confirm their flights back north.
Celebrity scouting report: Singer-songwriter Khaled*
I am very sure Algeria will do a great job, because they are a rather young team with a lot of talented, strong players who are driven and have great potential. This is a major opportunity for them all -- Algeria hasn't qualified in a long time. This makes them work harder and drives their success. ... The Algerian team isn't paid millions and millions -- they're first and foremost all proud to play for their country. They have the best secret strategy: large amounts of passion, drive, discipline and a great coach. I believe that is what will surprise everyone. ... As a performer and singer who has to perform before thousands on a regular basis, traveling a lot of the time can be draining. But what gives me my extra boost of energy, even if I am tired, is the passion and excitement of the audience. In South Africa, there will be thousands of fans, and I believe that will drive the team and give them the unstoppable fortitude. I will be there to cheer them on. I believe I'm scheduled to perform in South Africa, so for sure I will do everything to rev up the audiences for them -- not that I think they will need it. ... Zinedine Zidane is an icon for millions of young Algerians -- he is the symbol of the perfect French integration, a dream for many young Algerian football players. It was really nice of him to come see the team while they were in France in December. He symbolizes all the world possibilities for these guys, of where they can be in the future -- the success they can achieve is not out of their reach. This has been a most exciting and passionate time for the Algerian team and their fans.
*Cheb Khaled is known as the "King of Raï," an immensely popular form of Algerian folk pop. He has sold more than 46 million albums worldwide. Hear his music on MySpace. For tour information, go to demgmt.com.