Blessed with natural skill, nurtured by European efficiency, fuelled by raw Arabian passion, Gary Koh believes Algeria are undoubtedly Africa’s team of the tournament at this World Cup.
Having written a new chapter in their football history with a historic first-time progression into the knockout rounds in four finals, the Fennec Foxes came oh-so-close to another new milestone when they ran Germany ragged in the round-of-16 encounter.
Close but no cigar though as there would no repeat of what they did against South Korea and Russia onto Joachim Low’s men. And what a major pity though for neutrals, fans and scribes alike, as we would have so loved to continue our fairy tale with the Algerians in Brazil.
Once again, you can count on their shrewd tactician Vahid Halilhodzic to make massive changes according to the game situation. Once again, he made five changes from the side that helped Algeria progress at Russia’s expense in the 1-1 draw.
Tinkering with a trusted line-up is seldom done. Unless the game is a dead rubber, no coach will dare to make wholesale changes a la Vincente Del Bosque or Roy Hodgson. Typically, that would be asking for trouble.
But not for the Franco-Bosnian coach though. Twice he did so where there was so much at stake. Once he was richly rewarded and the other time he came close. That there was no visible dissent in the squad ranks showed the tremendous amount of respect the players had for him.
And they responded with much vigour and endeavour against the Germans. Not even their adjusted body mechanisms due to the ongoing holy Muslim fasting month would hinder their will and spirit to rewrite history once more.
As much as the Germans were run ragged by the spirited Algerians in the first half, there was to be no capitulation as the Foxes’ third World Cup victims in a row. Unlike South Korea and Russia, Die Mannschaft showed why they are one of the favourites in the tournament as they eventually prevailed 2-1 after extra time.
Unlike South Korea, Germany had an extremely reliable sweeper-goalkeeper to bail the rickety defence out. Manuel Neuer stood large and firm as their “fifth defender” against the pacy Algerians, making a total of four clearances, including two big ones in the first half, to ensure his side remained in contention.
Then, if Plan A did not work, there was always Plan B, Plan C and more. That was the approach Low took when his side were initially struggling to come to terms with the tenacity of the Algerians. Out went the subdued Mario Gotze and in came Andre Schurrle who would cause more problems for the determined but limited Foxes defence with his tactical runs from deep.
Whatever Algeria had on the bench, Germany had much more in substance in their reserves. Enter Sami Khedira when tournament debutante Shkodran Mustafi could not continue after sustaining an injury. That tactical reshuffle allowed versatile defensive midfielder and captain Philipp Lahm to drop to Mustafi’s previous role at right-back, stabilising what had then been four centre-backs in the backline.
Having failed to punish the Germans in the first 45 minutes, Algeria’s bluntness in attack would come back to haunt them as their bodies gave way to fatigue late in the game. No matter how clever the tactical plan was. No matter how determined the players were in giving their all against one of the tournament favourites. There was no compensation when the Foxes were out-smarted more thoroughly than they were throughout their campaign.
Fell they did eventually, but not before having jolted the Germans out of their comfort zone by picking at the chinks in their armour. Anguished and distraught – as the emotional tears of Halilhodzic with every embrace of his players showed in what was possibly his last match in charge of the team, the Algerian had more than captured the hearts of many in this tournament, including yours truly.
A football scribe with his heartbeat on the local and Asian pulse, Gary Koh has realised he now has an African side he truly likes, thanks to the tactical ingenuity of Halilhodzic and the passion and tenacity of Algeria.