Riyad Mahrez called on Algeria to rise to the challenge in Cameroon as they prepare to start their defence of the Africa Cup of Nations title. “This will be even harder than the last AFCON. The level will be a step up and the other teams are better, but we come here with the ambition and determination to try to replicate what we did in 2019 and achieve great things again,” Mahrez said in Douala, where the holders play their opening game against outsiders Sierra Leone on Tuesday.
The 30-year-old Manchester City winger skippered his country to victory against Senegal in the 2019 final in Egypt, and Djamel Belmadi’s team are unbeaten in competitive action since then.
They have not lost in 34 competitive outings, a run that does not include the recent Arab Cup in Qatar, in which Mahrez and other senior players did not participate.
Mahrez is one of the biggest stars at the Cup of Nations, which is going ahead despite some pressure from leading European clubs to postpone the tournament again, such was their reluctance to release leading players mid-season amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
However Mahrez said he had no problem with City, the runaway English Premier League leaders.
“Everything was fine with City. It’s not up to the clubs because we are playing for our country and it is a big tournament like the Euro or Copa America,” he said.
Mahrez stayed with Pep Guardiola’s squad during the busy Christmas and New Year period in England, notably playing 90 minutes in wins against Leicester City and Arsenal.
That was why Belmadi opted to leave him out of a training camp in Qatar last week.
“He played a lot of games over that period, more than usual, so we decided to leave him to recuperate a bit. There was no point in him being exhausted coming into the tournament,” said Belmadi.
Algeria, who also play Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast in Group E, may be among the favourites but Belmadi believes his team can thrive under pressure.
“We just have to get on with the pressure,” said the 45-year-old.
“Of course there is a difference between the situation in 2019 and now as we come into the tournament as the holders. But it’s fine. We are ambitious and will do everything to fulfil our objective.”
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