Tue, 18 Jan 2022

Sierra Leone marked their return to the Africa Cup of Nations after more than two decades with a gutsy draw against the defending champions Algeria.

In the prelude to the match at the Japoma Stadium in Douala, the Algeria skipper Riyad Mahrez said retaining the trophy would be an altogether different challenge.

He and his more storied teammates validated his reservations as they struggled to impose themselves against a side made up of players from the lower echelons of world football.

Sierra Leone coach John Keister said before the game that his men - the first team to feature at the Cup of Nations for 26 years - would relish the occasion to test their mettle against some of the continent's most famous names.

Fight on

And they lived up to his promise aided in no small measure by some sloppiness from the Algerians who frequently gave away possession in midfield and were toothless in attack.

A goalless scoreline at half-time was not unjustified.

Algeria stepped up the pace in the second half as Sierra Leone fell back.

Still the breakthrough did not come for the reigning champions. After 63 minutes, Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi had enough of the imprecision.

On came Farid Boulaya, Baghdad Boundejah and Sofiane Bendebka for Sofiane Fegholi, Islam Slimani and Yacine Brahimi.

Winning chances

And within minutes Bendebka had the chance to slide the ball home past the stranded Sierra Leone goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara but Steven Caulker got a leg in the way of the goalbound effort to send it out for a corner.

Fifteen minutes from time Bounedjah should have hit the target from Mahrez's cross from the right. But he headed over the bar.

And with four minutes left, another substitute, Said Benrahma, scuffed his shot wide when unmarked.

Belmadi, who had thrown on all his forwards against a tiring Sierra Leone backline, was a snarling frustrated figure on the sidelines as the 106th ranked nation reached 90 minutes against his champions.

Whatever happens to Sierra Leone at the Cup of Nations in January 2022, the last three minutes of the game against Algeria will go down in the country's football legend.

Sierra Leone held out. Ramy Bensebainii got into the area and shot. Kamara saved.

With a matter of seconds remaining, the last corner was sent over from the right, Bounedjah rose and powered a header goalwards but Kamara was - as he had been throughout the encounter - in the way again.

The 22-year-old from the East End Lions in Freetown sank to his knees clutching the ball preciously.

'Heroic' Sierra Leone

Before he could rise, referee Ahmad Imetehaz Heeralall blew the final whistle.

Within minutes Kamara was holding the award for man-of-the-match and too emotional to speak after his 10th international appearance.

Belmadi was munificent. "Sierra Leone were heroic and courageous; We have played against these type of teams before but as we didn't score that gave them hope to carry on.

"We had chances to score ... more than enough chances to score but we weren't ruthless enough."

Algeria next take on Equatorial Guinea who start their campaign againt Cote D'Ivoire on Wednesday.

"There's a lot of regret about the result," added Belmadi. "We wanted to start well with a win but we'll simply have to win the next match.

"We have to correct what went wrong and win that match."

Originally published on RFI

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