Once again Algeria proved a major pain in Fabio Capello’s neck. Four years ago England, managed by the Italian, produced one of their most abject World Cup performances in recent memory against the African nation in South Africa.
And on Thursday night, Algeria frustrated Capello yet again by ending Russia’s World Cup participation in Curitiba in a pulsating 1-1 draw.
Victory for Russia would have set up a second round clash against Germany and an opportunity for Capello to right the wrongs of England’s humiliating defeat against Joachim Low’s side four years ago - and, of course, THAT Frank Lampard phantom goal.
Progressing into the knockout stages was easier said than done, though. Algeria needed just a point to progress through to the second round for the first time in their history. For Russia on the other hand, it was win or bust. Only victory would see Capello’s men leapfrog last night’s opponents into second place. The Italian manager was under immense pressure to drop Russian football’s poster boy Alexander Kokorin for Aleksandr Kerzhakov up front ahead of last night’s clash.
Capello bowed to public pressure as Kerzhakov took his place the starting line-up, but Kokorin also kept his shirt. And the underfire striker repaid his manager’s faith in the sixth minute by giving Russia an early lead.
The Dynamo Moscow forward planted an unstoppable header, after escaping Essaid Belkalem’s attentions, from Oleg Shatov’s outswinging cross past Adi Mbolhi.
The 23-year-old held his finger to his mouth as he celebrated, perhaps a response to critics back in his homeland. On the touchline, Capello was more concerned about building on his side’s dream start as the Russians threatened to increase their lead inside the opening 25 minutes.
Denis Glushakov’s couldn’t quite pull the trigger following a dangerous run through the heart of Algeria’s back four, while Shatov watched a wicked long range effort fly narrowly wide of Mbolhi’s goal.
Slowly but surely, though, the Algerian’s dusted off their early cobwebs, with the impressive Yacine Brahimi leading his nation’s charge. And Vahid Halilhodzic’s side went within inches from equalising in the 29th minute when Islam Slimani saw his header from Brahimi’s corner brilliantly tipped over the bar by Igor Akinfeev.
Three minutes from half-time the pair combined again for almost a carbon copy of the earlier chance, but Slimani again saw his header saved. And the Algerians were nearly punished for their missed chances just two minutes into the second half when Mbolhi produced an excellent point blank save from Alexander Samedov after an incisive one-two with Kokorin.
The importance of Mbolhi’s was amplified on the hour when the Algerian’s notched their decisive leveller. The Brahimi/Slimani combination had already caused Russia problems in the first half - but Capello’s side didn’t learn their lesson.
This time Slimani’s header from Brahimi’s free-kick beat Akinfeev to put the Algerian’s back on course for the knockout stages. Abdelmoumene Djabou saw his long-range effort comfortably saved moments later as Algeria went for the jugular. Kerzakhov threatened to spoil the Algerian party in the 70th minute, but saw his low shot saved by the excellent Mbolhi.
And Algerian boss Halilhodzic made the surprising decision to take off Brahimi, his side’s most potent attacking threat, with 20 minutes left to play. It was a clear statement of intent from Halilhodzic as he looked to protect his side’s vital point. Likewise, Capello knew it was now or never as he urged his side on in search of a decisive second. But for all their late pressure, the Russian’s struggled to carve out a winning opportunity.