By Alan Baldwin
Islam Slimani headed an ecstatic Algeria into the last 16 of the World Cup for the first time with the equaliser in a 1-1 draw against Russia on Thursday that dumped Fabio Capello’s team out of the tournament.
On a momentous night for the North Africans, who were the last team through to the knockout round, Slimani rose to the occasion and nodded home in the 60th minute to cancel out Alexander Kokorin’s sixth-minute header.
There was controversy surrounding the Algerian goal, however, with Capello complaining that goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev had been distracted by a laser beam shone from the crowd.
Television images seemed to back up his assertion, with what appeared to be green beams flashing across the keeper’s body as he tried to reach the cross.
“Our goalkeeper was affected by a laser 10 seconds before the goal. He was blinded by a laser, there are photos, films of it,” said Capello, who was also critical of the Turkish referee.
With Belgium beating South Korea to advance as Group H leaders, Algeria finished runner-ups and face former champions Germany in Porto Alegre on Monday for a place in the quarter-finals.
That will be a match with a back story and the potential for revenge, Germany and Austria conspiring in a ‘non-aggression pact’ at the 1982 World Cup to ensure they went through at Algeria’s expense.
“This history is repeating itself after 32 years,” declared Algeria’s Bosnian-born coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
“We are very proud of what we have achieved this evening. We played a heroic match and I think our qualification was totally deserved. Tonight we have received a great gift but we went out and earned it.”
In a tense match with everything at stake and 2018 hosts Russia needing a win to go through, the ‘Desert Foxes’ deserved the draw and might even have snatched a late winner against a Russian side that started brightly but ran out of steam.
It had seemed to be Russia’s night when Kokorin met a beautifully-flighted Dmitry Kombarov cross with a perfectly-executed header in the sixth minute.
Algeria, playing what Halilhodzic had called the most important match in their soccer history, rarely threatened in the first half and looked a shadow of the side who thumped four goals past the Koreans.
Slimani had an effort tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev in the 30th minute, but the linesman had already flagged for offside, and Algeria’s other tame attempts had Halilhodzic gesticulating furiously from the touchline.
The anger turned into a smile worthy of a World Cup winner as Algeria, who joined Nigeria as Africa’s two representatives in the second round, battled back in the second half.
Slimani seized his chance in the 60th minute with a powerful header at the near post from a Yacine Brahimi free kick that Akinfeev failed to reach and left Capello seething at the refereeing.
“The foul that led to the goal was a foul for us. I have to think about the refereeing we had against Belgium too,” said the Italian, whose World Cup record with England and Russia now stands at just one win in seven games.
Capello had made just one change to the side who lost 1-0 to Belgium, handing a first start of the tournament to veteran striker Alexander Kerzhakov in place of Maxim Kanunnikov but the goals failed to flow.
“They (Algeria) played a good game. We had three chances to win the game and didn’t take them,” acknowledged Capello, whose future with Russia remains uncertain.
Instead, Algeria once again denied the Italian three points after holding Capello’s England to a goalless draw in South Africa four years ago.
That time it was England who went through but Thursday belonged to Algeria, their fans praying for the match to end and erupting at the final whistle.
“We are representing the Arab countries – we are giving a new face, a new image. The Algerian team has earned a lot of affection in my home country in Bosnia, in Croatia, in the former Yugoslavia…across the world,” Halilhodzic said.
“We are going to face a great German team but the Brazilian fans will be on our side”