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Leekens urges Algeria to avoid Zimbabwe trap

Algeria's Riyad Mahrez (centre) is expected to be one of the star players in Gabon along with Senegal's Sadio Mané (right) and Gabon skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Reuters/Montage/RFI

Georges Leekens tapped into more than 30 years in the dugout to warn his players about the dangers of taking on so-called "underdogs". Leekens, 67, leads Algeria into the 2017 Cup of Nations seeking their second title. They face Zimbabwe in their opening game in Group B on Sunday in Franceville.

Algeria, according to the Fifa rankings, should beat Zimbabwe. There are more than 60 places between the countries.

But Leekens, who started his coaching career in 1984 with Cercle Brugge in Belgium, said he ignored such prognostics.

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"I view our game against Zimbabwe as a tough challenge. We need to apply our minds 100 percent to how we are going to conquer Zimbabwe.

“The first match of a tournament is always important. Zimbabwe are a good side but we’ve worked hard and are in a good state of mind.”

Group B has been reduced to a three way fight between Senegal – the current top ranked African team - Tunisia and Algeria, who are rated fourth and fifth respectively.

Zimbabwe, who are 30th in the lists, had an unsettled prelude to the event in Gabon. The players and the Zimbabwe Football Association rowed over fees and bonuses for appearing at the tournament for the first time in 11 years.

"I know they had some pre-tournament problems,” said Leekens who coached Algeria in 2003. “But the Cup of Nations history is littered with teams who have defied off-field problems to succeed. Zimbabwe travelled to Cameroon and drew 1-1 in a warm-up match. That was an impressive result.”

Thinking about Zimbabwe

Algeria enter the tournament with their own set of formidable weapons. Riyad Mahrez was anointed African footballer of the year just before the Cup of Nations for his stellar performances with Leicester City as they defied the odds to win the English Premier League title in 2016.

Mahrez, 25, was born in France but opted for the land of his father and he will be one of the keys to Algerian success along with his Leicester City teammate Islam Slimani.

"All the Algerian media and public are talking about is Senegal and Tunisia," added Leekens, who coached Tunisia for a year just before rejoining Algeria. "But I am thinking only of Zimbabwe.”

Disappointment in 2015

Two years ago in Equatorial Guinea
, Algeria were viewed as favourites for the continental crown but Christian Gourcuff’s team succumbed in the last eight to eventual champions Côte d’Ivoire.

Algeria's only success came in 1990 when they won a then eight team tournament.

The format developed to 16 sides for the 1996 event in South Africa and less than a week since world football’s governing body Fifa announced the World Cup would grow from 32 to 48 teams from 2026 onwards, the Confederation of African Football - organisers of the Cup of Nations - has not officially broached the issue of expansion.

Steering a side to such a prestigious title would enhance Leekens' reputation.

“We’ve done everything necessary to prepare the players for the challenges ahead," he said. I’m sure they’ll show that on the field.”