Algeria vs. Russia: 50-50 Challenge
Our expert bloggers will give their thoughts ahead of each game, so as Algeria take on Russia in Group H, Maher Mezahi (Algeria) and Michael Yokhin (Russia) are your guides.
What's at stake?
Maher Mezahi: Everything is at stake. The match against Russia on Thursday evening might very well be the most important match in Algeria's footballing history. A win or draw should send Les Fennecs to the round of 16 for the first time ever. Algeria has never faced Russia, but Russia boss Fabio Capello will know the North Africans well, having squared off with the Desert Foxes in South Africa four years ago while at the helm of England. In Cape Town, Algeria managed to frustrate Capello's side, but he will seek his revenge in Curitiba as Russia look to sneak into the knockout stages.
Michael Yokhin: This is quite simply one of the most important Russia games in recent history. A win is needed to make it to the second round at World Cup for the first time in post-Soviet era, and for the first time since 1986 if you take USSR into account.
Russia failed at the group stage in 1994 and 2002, when their squad was better than it is now, and didn't qualify for the tournament at all in 1998, 2006 and 2010. Now they can record their biggest achievement, ahead of hosting the World Cup themselves in 2018. It is now or never for this team to fulfill its potential, which is rather limited but still much higher than we witnessed in the first two games.
MM: After a slight goal drought in official competitions, Islam Slimani rediscovered his goal-scoring form against South Korea. The Sporting Clube de Portugal man hustled and bustled his way his way to a goal in the 26th minute. Twelve minutes later, he latched onto a botched clearance to provide Abdelmoumene Djabou with an assist. It is doubtful that he can torture Russia's centre-halves in the same manner he did Kim Young-gwon and Hong Jeong-ho, but Slimani's activity and killer instinct will be pivotal in any success Algeria are to have versus Russia.
MY: It is time to attack, and the X factor for Russia is a man who spent most of the first two fixtures on the bench and could finally get a chance to shine in the starting lineup. Aleksandr Kerzhakov, the only survivor from the 2002 squad when he was a 19-year-old, started in all 10 qualifying games under Capello, and his predatory instincts in the penalty area are desperately needed now.
The Zenit forward -- who netted the team's only goal in the tournament so far, equalising against the Koreans just moments after coming on as a sub -- is level with Vladimir Beschastnykh as Russia's all-time top scorer (26 goals). Another strike will make him the sole leader, but will Capello trust him?
MM: Russia have started their two group matches without Alan Dzagoev or Kerzhakov. The Russians are obligated to win, so Capello might opt for a more attacking formation and start the attacking triumvirate of Dzagoev, Kerzhakov and Aleksandr Kokorin. With that kind of arsenal available to him, Dzagoev will possess the necessary tools to hurt Algeria. His creativity poses the largest threat to a defence that has conceded two goals per match in this tournament.
MY: If Russia have to expose themselves at the back trying to score, Algeria will be extremely dangerous on the counter. Light-footed and technically sound players, especially Sofiane Feghouli and Yacine Brahimi, are capable of posing all sorts of problems -- even more so when you take into account that the experienced pair of central defenders, Vasily Berezutskiy and Sergei Ignashevich, lack pace. Algeria's lineup will be difficult to predict, and Capello must prepare his troops for a few different scenarios.
MM: Brahimi versus Denis Glushakov. This individual battle is a microcosm of the larger narrative underlining the action on the pitch. Only the Netherlands, Colombia and France have scored more goals per match than Les Fennecs, and no player better encapsulates Algeria's verve and panache than Brahimi. Denis Glushakov, who sits in front of Russia's back four, will be tasked with trying to muzzle Brahimi and Algeria's other attacking midfielders. The Spartak Moscow man represents Russia's defensive rigidity and tactical intelligence. If Glushakov and co can stifle Brahimi's genius, they will vastly increase their chance of victory.
MY: Russia's offensive midfielders, especially in the center, will be absolutely crucial. The team lacked imagination, as Oleg Shatov expectedly failed to produce any sparks as their new playmaker. Whether he stays put or is replaced by Alan Dzagoev, the offensive midfielder must win the tactical battle with Algeria's defensive midfield players. If Russia are shut down in that area, as they were in the previous games, their chances of scoring will be much lower.
MM: A lot depends on whether Algeria can score early. The plan is to attack from the get-go, but if Algeria fail to beat Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, the final stages of the match could get nervy. A tense 1-1 seems the most likely outcome.
MY: The game could easily go either way, and much depends on the tactical choices of the coaches. Vahid Halilhodzic of Algeria is probably the most flexible coach at the tournament, while Capello is one of the most rigid, and that -- in all fairness -- doesn't cause a lot of optimism. Both previous predictions proved to be optimistic, but I'll go for it again -- hopefully it will be correct this time. A long shot, really, but 1-0 to Russia.