Algeria captain and former Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez believes he knows the recipe for winning the Africa Cup of Nations — thorough preparations, good luck and experience.
“Whichever country is the best prepared and enjoys a little bit of luck will go all the way,” the 32-year-old winger told reporters.
“Experience is also a major factor. I and many teammates in the Algerian squad know all about the Cup of Nations.
“Making a good start is often crucial. We beat Kenya in our opening match in 2019 and won the tournament. We drew with Sierra Leone three years later and flopped.”
France-born Mahrez, who left the Premier League for the lucrative Saudi Pro League this year, was a key figure when Algeria won the 2019 Cup of Nations in Egypt.
He was also part of the squad that fared dismally when defending the title in Cameroon two years ago as defeats by Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast led to elimination after the first round.
Algeria, with a mix of 2019 survivors and new blood, are favourites to win Group D at the 2024 finals, which kick off in the Ivory Coast commercial capital Abidjan on Saturday.
They are the top seeds in a section including Burkina Faso, a team with second, third and fourth place finishes in their past four appearances, and outsiders Angola and Mauritania.
The top two in the final standings automatically advance to the round of 16 and it would be a shock if Algeria and Burkina Faso did not fill those positions.
– ‘Deep sense of belonging’ –
That would leave two-time quarter-finalists Angola and Mauritania, seeking a first win at the tournament, fighting to be one of the best four third-place finishers and also qualifying.
Born in a northern Paris suburb, Mahrez qualifies for Algeria because his late father was born in the oil-rich north African country.
“I visited the village where my father was born every year and felt a deep sense of belonging. I was really close to the people, and to my adopted homeland.”
Mahrez recalls with visible joy the reception the Desert Foxes received when they conquered Africa five years ago by defeating Senegal 1-0 in a final won by a Baghdad Bounedjah goal.
“The bus parade was supposed to take 30 minutes, but actually lasted seven hours. The passion of the people was incredible. I have not witnessed it in any other country.”
Goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi, defenders Ramy Bensebaini and Aissa Mandi, midfielders Ismael Bennacer and Sofiane Feghouli and forwards Youcef Belaili and Bounedjah are other 2019 winners called up.
Also chosen was Nice defender Youcef Atal, who received an eight-month suspended sentence from a French court last week for inciting religious hatred in a social media post concerning Gaza.
Burkina Faso have constantly punched above their weight in recent Cup of Nations and boast a star defender in Edmond Tapsoba from Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen.
A setback for the Stallions, though, is the lack of game time for their best known forward, Bertrand Traore, at Aston Villa this season.
After shock qualification for the 2006 World Cup and two last-eight Cup of Nations appearances soon after, Angola have regressed, missing three of the last four African tournaments.
Mauritania were the worst performers of all 24 teams at the last edition, losing all three group matches and failing to score.