Three thoughts from Algeria's 1-1 draw with Russia in the final Group H game in Curitiba, Brazil.
Exorcising the ghosts of Gijon
Thirty-two years after West Germany and Austria conspired to end Algeria's World Cup dreams, Les Fennecs can finally celebrate a spot in the tournament's knockout stages. Back in 1982, Algeria watched on, infuriated, as the two European neighbours played in what was no more than a glorified kickabout, West Germany's 1-0 victory ensuring both nations went through at the expense of the North Africans.
The sense of injustice felt by that match -- labelled the "Anschluss" and the "Disgrace of Gijon" depending on whom in Algeria you question -- has transcended generations; such was the global uproar that FIFA introduced simultaneous kickoff times for final World Cup group games.
This time, though, there was to be no heartbreak. One flick of Islam Slimani's head cast away the memories of three decades ago, a 1-1 draw with Russia securing progress to the round of 16. The opening game against Belgium brought Algeria their first World Cup goal since 1986, while the second game against South Korea brought a first World Cup victory since that ill-fated campaign in '82. The third game brought the real bounty, however, as progress to the knockout stages was achieved for the first time in Algeria's history.
Vahid Halilhodzic's side fought hard for that progress. Having flourished against South Korea with a devastating attacking performance, Les Fennecs dug deep to deny Russia. It was a performance of grit and determination that required a recovery from an early goal, an approach that was exemplified by midfielder Sofiane Feghouli literally bleeding for the cause, his bandaged head certain to become a symbol of heroism in his homeland.
And in a wonderful twist of fate, none other than Germany -- and the prospect of real redemption for the "Disgrace of Gijon" -- await in the round of 16.
Slimani the saviour again
The dominant performance of Sporting forward Islam Slimani in the victory over South Korea was one of the most impressive seen by an Algerian in a World Cup encounter. His opening goal in that game lifted his teammates and instilled the belief that took them to a famous victory, and he then helped put the game beyond doubt when he set up Abdelmoumene Djabou for the third.
He was kept significantly quieter by Russia's robust defence but, when the time came, it was Slimani who was the saviour again, further furrowing the famous brow of Russia coach Fabio Capello -- looking particularly resplendent in a dazzling red tank top. In rising highest to head home Yacine Brahimi's delivery for a 60th-minute equaliser, Slimani became Algerian's all-time leading World Cup scorer -- his two goals proving priceless for a country who have been far from prolific in previous finals.
Prior to the game, Algeria's national telecom provider Mobilis had promised to cover any fans' expenses should the team secure what Madjid Bougherra had described as "historic qualification"; the number of texts sent from Curitiba to Algeria and back on Thursday containing the words "Slimani" and "goal" will probably prove enough to fund such a vow.
Kokorin finally rises as Russia fall
After he was built up as his nation's great new hope ahead of the World Cup, a pair of unconvincing games against South Korea and Belgium had led to criticism of Alexander Kokorin by those frustrated by the failure of a player with such obvious talent to transfer his exceptional domestic displays to the international arena.
In the blue of Dinamo Moscow, the sky has been the limit -- his influence helping the club to a fourth-place finish in the recent Russian Premier League season -- but in the red of Russia he has looked repressed at times.
That's why his sixth-minute goal was met with discernible relief, a defiant finger-to-mouth celebration a direct message to those who had doubted his value to Russia. The goal, a precise finish from Dmitry Kombarov's sweeping left-foot cross, demonstrated both physicality and finesse -- his athletic leap escaping his markers and enabling him to direct a powerful header beyond the grasp of Adi Mbolhi into the top corner.
Capello had appeared to pander to media clamour by handing veteran Alexander Kerzhakov -- scorer from the bench in the opening game against South Korea -- his first start of the tournament. The Zenit St. Petersburg striker's inclusion initially allowed Kokorin more space, but the Algerian defence soon became wise to Russia's young pretender, whose chances were limited after his early goal.
It was not to be Kokorin's moment in the sun as Algeria's Desert Foxes condemned Russia to a third successive group-stage exit, but at 23 years old, he has time on his side. The experience of Brazil should leave Kokorin well equipped to deal with the hype and expectation that are sure to accompany him when taking the field as one of the leading lights of the 2018 World Cup's host nation.