14 December 2012

Algeria: Lemmouchia - Halilhodzic Has Revived Algeria

"He turned up at the right time, just when the team was at its lowest ebb. Things broke down after the World Cup and he had to make some difficult decisions and get rid of some of the old guard." When it comes to detailing the progress made by Vahid Halilhodzic since taking charge of Algeria, Kaled Lemmouchia is certainly fulsome in his praise.

The midfielder was part of the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africaâ„¢ but did not play at the tournament itself. Nevertheless he has gone on to become one of the pillars of this new-look Algerian team that the Bosnian strategist has put together.

The former Paris Saint-Germain coach took charge in the summer of 2011, ahead of the last two qualifiers of an ultimately doomed CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2012 campaign. Since then, however, he has managed to put together a squad in his own image, which has involved parting ways with certain players who had previously been considered undroppable.

Yazid Mansouri, Rafik Saifi, Hassan Yebda, Karim Ziani, Antar Yahia and Nadir Belhadj were all victims of the new strategy and fell off the radar, while Lemmouchia - 31-years old and with no European experience - came to symbolise the wind of change brought in by the man universally known as "Coach Vahid."

"We've been working really well for the past 14 months. We've got a good, honest, young group, we've made progress and we really, really want to succeed," Lemmouchia, who plies his trade in Tunisia for Club Africain, told FIFA.com. "The coach gets his message across perfectly and everyone has bought into his methods which are making us better players.

"Everyone can see that, and it's also in everyone's interest as individuals. I experienced what it was like in the pre-Halilhodzic era and I can tell you that we've certainly made great strides in terms of pre-match preparation and training. He's a strict, demanding coach and to be perfectly honest, that suits the entire group down to the ground. He's changed people's mindsets: both the players and the administrators know that, at the top level of football, you only get out what you put in."

Lemmouchia was born in a suburb of Lyon and trained with Olympique Lyonnais, but was unable to earn a professional contract in his native France. He played with amateur side AS Lyon-Duchere for four years before moving to ES Setif, winning two Algerian league titles and winning his first caps for that country. He spent another season in Algeria's top flight with USM Alger before a transfer took him to Club Africain last August.

"I never played at the highest level in Europe but I don't have any regrets - I've lived my dream," says Lemmouchia when explaining how his career only blossomed as he neared the age of 30. "I love the Tunisian league. I've learnt, gained experience and with my status and all the years I've been around, I have earned a spot as an automatic choice for my country. I got wisdom to pass on to youngsters, and I think I'm well placed to do that."

The message certainly seems to be getting across, with Les Fennecs having achieved their primary aim of qualifying for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2013. They have since been drawn in the a fearsome-looking group, however, alongside Côte d'Ivoire, Tunisia and Togo, meaning that they will have little margin for error once they get their campaign under way down in South Africa.

For Lemmouchia however, the continental showpiece should serve as a means to an end, not an end in itself. "It'll be a real psychological test because, other than Mali, we haven't really played any of the big African teams recently," he said.

"This [group] will show what we're worth and it's come just at the right time ahead of the qualifiers for the World Cup, which it what we are all dreaming about and aiming for. The CAN is here to underline all the hard work we've put in for the past 14 months and build up our confidence levels, and it'll help the youngsters get more experience."

Lemmouchia also realises that they may well taste defeat, but he rejects the idea of "starting from scratch all over again if we fail" and is convinced that Halilhodzic has got them on the right path.

"He doesn't say much but when he does, he gets straight to the point, and I like that. When he criticises he keeps it clear and he always looks to stir up the players' pride," said Lemmouchia, before signing off with a bullish verdict on his side's long-term prospects. "We want to go all the way and I know we're capable of it."

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