Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi hit back at criticism of star man Riyad Mahrez but admitted his team would need to improve drastically to qualify for the World Cup after the reigning African champions were dumped out of the Cup of Nations on Thursday.
The 2019 champions needed to beat the Ivory Coast in their final group game to qualify for the last 16 but slumped to a 3-1 loss in Douala to finish bottom of their section.
“This is something we have to swallow. It is hard for us because we are not used to losing. It is a bitter taste. It is horrible,” said Belmadi as Algeria head home after collecting just a single point in three group matches.
The 2019 champions came to Cameroon on a 34-game unbeaten run but were held to a 0-0 draw by minnows Sierra Leone in their first match and then lost 1-0 to Equatorial Guinea.
They were then outclassed by the 2015 champions in Douala as Mahrez missed a penalty.
Belmadi was deflated but still hit back at one question criticizing the performance of Mahrez and suggesting the Manchester City star had been allowed to take a holiday before the tournament rather than join up with the squad at their training camp.
“Don’t go and point the finger at players who have given you so much happiness,” he slammed.
“When things are not going well you start to point the finger at him or me.
“Did you want me to drop him to the bench? I didn’t change things. I left him in the team. When you talk about holidays you are at the very least ill-informed and at worst dishonest.”
Algeria must now turn their thoughts to trying to reach the World Cup with the draw for the final play-off round of African qualifying taking place this weekend.
“We will have to pick ourselves up, digest this, analyse it and lift our heads up. The World Cup awaits and we will need to do better,” Belmadi said.
The Ivory Coast crushed an abject Algeria 3-1 on Thursday with Nicolas Pepe among the scorers as the reigning champions crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations in the group stage.
Franck Kessie and Ibrahim Sangare scored in the first half for the Elephants in Douala, while Pepe added another goal after the break as the Ivorians finished top of Group E.
Riyad Mahrez hit the post with a second-half penalty before Sofiane Bendebka pulled one back for Algeria with their first goal since arriving in Cameroon, but by then it was too late.
It is the fifth time in the last six Cups of Nations that the reigning champions have failed to make the AFCON knockout phase, but there has arguably never been a worse title defence.
“A failure, simple as that,” was how Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi summed it up.
“We never managed to take our chances, right from the start of the competition. Even penalties we had difficulty with. We just weren’t good enough.”
Algeria came to the tournament on an unbeaten run stretching back over three years but they were held by Sierra Leone in their opening match and then lost to Equatorial Guinea to suffer a first defeat in 36 matches.
They would have gone through with a win against an Ivory Coast side already guaranteed their place in the knockout rounds, but that never looked likely.
Their demise was lapped up by the fans at the Japoma Stadium in Cameroon’s economic capital, with the 50,000-capacity ground filling up as the game went on.
By the time the match was over it looked like fans had taken up more seats than the 60 percent capacity limit imposed as part of coronavirus restrictions, and many invaded the pitch in chaotic scenes of celebration.
The Ivory Coast clearly had the backing of the crowd and they will stay in Douala for a heavyweight last-16 tie against Mohamed Salah’s Egypt.
“I am very, very satisfied about what my team has done tonight,” said the Ivory Coast’s French coach, Patrice Beaumelle, who has twice won the AFCON as an assistant coach and had some sympathy for Algeria and their failed attempt to retain the title.
“It is always difficult because it is a coveted trophy and when we won it with Zambia in 2012 that inspired a lot of teams as well.”
Equatorial Guinea through
Equatorial Guinea went through in second place in Group E after defeating Sierra Leone 1-0 in Limbe thanks to a superb first-half strike from Pablo Ganet.
Kei Kamara missed a penalty for Sierra Leone as they crashed out while Equatorial Guinea will stay in Limbe for a last-16 tie against Group F winners Mali.
The Group E results also ensured that debutants Comoros go through and play hosts Cameroon next.