The Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Desert Foxes of Algeria will clash today in a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semi-final encounter at the Cairo international stadium in Egypt.
Three-time champions Nigeria are looking for their fourth title since winning their first on home soil at the expense of Algeria in 1980, while the Algerians are looking for their second crown since winning on home soil at the expense of Nigeria in 1990.
The Super Eagles dashed the hopes of Algerian players in 2017 after stopping them from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, as they bashed the Foxes 3-1 in Uyo and tied the second leg in Constantine 1-1 before FIFA awarded the match to Algeria following the ineligible defender Abdullahi Shehu fielded by the Eagles.
Nigeria have been dogged in their approach, keeping their feet on the ground, cautious but able to smell opportunities to strike and able to swing games in their favour even towards the end. This strategy worked for Guinea, Cup holders Cameroon, South Africa, and Burundi.
Coach Gernot Rohr says defeat by Madagascar has rudely awakened his boys to the approach they must adopt to win each game, by not under-rating any team.
On the other hand, Algeria Coach Djamel Belmadi, stated it firmly on Saturday that his team are aiming for the trophy by paying the Super Eagles back after stopping them from reaching the 2018 World Cup.
When France line up for their World Cup semi-final French great Thierry Henry will stare back at them from the Belgium bench — and Les Bleus can’t stop talking about it
Henry, who was part of the France squad that won the 1998 World Cup on home soil, has been assistant manager to Belgium boss Roberto Martinez since 2016 and has helped guide the Red Devils to the last four of a World Cup for just the second time.
The irony that a player who scored 51 goals in 123 international appearances and helped France become world and European champions is now plotting to stop them reaching the final in Russia is not lost on the current French team.
“It will be bizarre to have him up against us,” forward Olivier Giroud said. “He is a living legend of French football.
“He has given so much to the France team and we have got a lot of respect for what he has done.”
“But of course I would be proud to show ‘Titi’ that he has chosen the wrong camp,” Giroud added, using Henry’s French nickname.
‘Lost sight of him’
After spending most of his career at Premier League club Arsenal and putting down roots in England, 40-year-old Henry has had little involvement in French football despite being one of the most popular players that France has ever produced.
French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet told AFP pointedly that “we’ve rather lost sight of him and he has little contact with the federation”.
“Life can be like that sometimes. He has been in England a long time and personally I have very little contact with him,” Le Graet said.
He said Henry had made Belgium into “a team that likes to attack”.
“The strikers go to him, they respect him,” he said.
Henry had little previous coaching experience and the president said he had “probably chosen the right solution” by taking the job of an assistant.
He compared Henry’s early steps in coaching to those followed by Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid before he took the top job and went on to win three Champions League titles in a row.
“It is definitely better to start as assistant in a national team, even if he was hoping it would be in Arsenal’s staff,” Le Graet said. “There is no doubt that he has a career in coaching ahead of him.”
Henry, now sporting a thick beard, is happy to remain in the background as Martinez, a former manager of English clubs Wigan and Everton, does the talking to the media.
He joined the Belgium setup in 2016 just after Martinez was appointed and reportedly set to work immediately with forwards Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi.
Though a very different player from the elegant Frenchman, the powerfully built Lukaku showed a touch of Henry in his intelligent dummy that allowed the ball to run through to Nacer Chadli to score Belgium’s winner in the thrilling come-from-behind 3-2 win over Japan in the last 16.
Jean-Marie Pfaff, the Belgium goalkeeper when they last reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1986, told AFP’s German sports agency SID that Henry would be “France’s main opponent” in the semi-final.
“He plays an extremely important role for Martinez,” Pfaff said. “Martinez regularly asks him for advice and he listens to it. I think that Thierry Henry can be credited with some of the tactical ploys.”
Giroud, who like Henry was an Arsenal forward until he joined Chelsea last year, wishes Henry were on the French staff.
“Of course I wish he was with us and was giving advice to me and the other strikers. But we can’t be envious. It is not something that shocks me because it is a normal move at this stage in his career.”
France defender Lucas Hernandez said he was sure Henry would be happy if France beat his employers on Wednesday.
“He’ll be happy if we win because above all else he is a Frenchman,” the 22-year-old left-back said.
World Cup favourites France are targeting the final in Russia two decades after their 1998 triumph with one of their greatest players, Thierry Henry, plotting their downfall from the dugout of opponents Belgium.
The European neighbours meet in Tuesday’s first semi-final in Saint Petersburg for the right to play England or Croatia in Sunday’s showpiece in Moscow.
Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Henry, who was part of the squad that won the World Cup on home soil 20 years ago, is now alongside Belgium coach Roberto Martinez and eyeing the chinks in France’s armour.
“It will be bizarre to have him up against us,” said France striker Olivier Giroud. “He is a living legend of French football.
“He has given so much to the France team and we have got a lot of respect for what he has done. But we’re not thinking about it too much, we’re going to be focused on the pitch and our game.”
A slick Belgium side boasting the talents of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are the only team to have won all their matches in Russia and are the top scorers, with 14 goals.
Confidence is sky-high after they ousted Neymar’s Brazil in the quarter-finals but they will come up against formidable opponents in France as they try to reach a first ever World Cup final.
Didier Deschamps’ side, with Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe up front, struggled for goals in their group matches but have now hit their stride, dominating Uruguay after beating Argentina.
France will start the semi-final in Saint Petersburg as favourites, with an impressive mix of youth and experience allied to tournament nous after they reached the Euro 2016 final.
With Hugo Lloris impressing in goal and a solid midfield of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, the one potential weakness for France could be their inexperienced defence.
Belgium’s Thomas Meunier will miss the game after picking up a second yellow card but France will be buoyed by the return of defensive midfielder Blaise Matuidi, after sitting out a suspension of his own.
Southgate tells stars: you can be heroes
For the fifth time in World Cup history, the semi-finals will be an all-European affair. On each of those occasions the tournament has been hosted in Europe.
In the other last-four clash on Wednesday, England take on Croatia in Moscow.
England boss Gareth Southgate has told his players they can be bigger heroes even than the generation of 1966, which featured Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.
“I’ve met quite a few of those players and we know exactly how they’re held and perhaps, in the modern era, that would be even crazier,” Southgate told British newspapers.
“(With) social media and everything else, the global thing is so much bigger.”
England is gripped by World Cup fever. Nearly 20 million viewers tuned in for the win over Sweden and social media is awash with videos of excited fans watching on big screens in bars and parks, fanatically celebrating every England goal.
Captain Harry Kane is the man leading England’s charge in Russia with six goals so far, putting him top in the race for the Golden Boot. Lukaku is on four goals and France’s Griezmann and Mbappe have three each.
Despite Kane’s impressive tally, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has identified Raheem Sterling as England’s danger man in their semi-final.
Sterling was a key part of the Manchester City side that won the Premier League last season but he has been less effective in England’s charge to the last four for the first time since 1990.
“I think Raheem Sterling is an important player because he is fast and dangerous alongside Harry Kane,” Dalic said.
Croatia, who boast Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic in a strong midfield, emerged through extra-time and spot-kicks against Denmark before going through the same ordeal again against Russia in Saturday’s quarter-final.
“Our last three games were different because we played teams with a defensive approach,” he said.
“But we are looking forward to a different style of game against England because they like to play attacking football.”
Arsenal survived a scare as they progressed to the last four of the Europa League on Thursday after coming back to draw 2-2 with CSKA Moscow in Russia.
Fedor Chalov and Kirill Nababkin scored for CSKA to set Arsenal nerves jangling in the Russian capital, as the hosts looked to overturn a 4-1 deficit from the first leg.
But Danny Welbeck pulled one back before Aaron Ramsey levelled the scores on the night in stoppage time, taking the Premier League side through 6-3 on aggregate.
It was another night of comebacks in a crazy midweek in Europe, with Marseille and Red Bull Salzburg producing stirring performances to overturn first-leg deficits and go through.
Salzburg lost 4-2 to Lazio in Rome last week but won 4-1 in the return in Austria, despite Ciro Immobile giving the Italians a second-half lead on the night.
The hosts proceeded to score four times in 20 minutes to advance 6-5 on aggregate.
Marseille recovered from losing 1-0 away to RB Leipzig last week, and from falling behind to the Germans inside two minutes in the return at the Velodrome, as they won 5-2 on the night to progress 5-3 on aggregate.
A brilliant Dimitri Payet finish for Marseille’s fourth was a highlight as they made it through to a first European semi-final since 2004.
Atletico Madrid are also through, and remain the favourites to win the trophy in Lyon next month — they were beaten 1-0 on the night away to Sporting Lisbon but progressed 2-1 on aggregate.