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Egypt on edge at prospect of finals revenge

The Africa Cup of Nations holders are showing signs of paranoia about taking on old foes Algeria today

As Mohamed Zidan bounced along a line of German journalists after Egypt's victory over Cameroon on Monday, one word seemed to dominate his thoughts on today's semi-final against Algeria: "Krieg". "For both sides this will be a war," he said. "This is a matter of life and death. For us it's a chance to show the world that we deserve to be at the World Cup. If we win this we can watch the World Cup in peace. We're the champions and we're a better team than them. Everybody will see who is the better team."

It would be fair to say that Egypt have not yet come to terms with their 1-0 defeat to Algeria in a World Cup qualifying play-off in the Sudanese city of Omdurman in November. "We've won the last two Cups of Nations," Zidan said, "and we had good results in the Confederations Cup. Everybody in Egypt says we are the best group of players of all time, but you can't always get what you want. The best answer for the fans, for the people and for ourselves would be to defend our title. We've a point to prove to ourselves."

And also to Algeria, whose resolute defending nullified Egypt in that play-off after taking a first-half lead though Antar Yahia's back-post volley. "It was a game about blood, about dying; Algeria died for this game," Zidan said. "They scored a goal from nothing – if the guy had that chance 100 times he would not hit it in that way and the ball would not go in the net that way. Then the team defended the whole game, stayed in their own half. We had many chances, but we couldn't make one count. You can't say that Algeria don't deserve to be at the World Cup, but they had luck."

Egypt have been by some way the most impressive side so far in this Africa Cup of Nations in Angola, but there is an edginess about them. They have gone a record 17 games since losing a match in the competition, but they are all too aware that the last side to beat them was Algeria, six years ago in Tunisia. So suspicious have they become that after an Algerian journalist managed to get into the lobby of their team hotel, the Egypt coach Hassan Shehata declared a complete lockdown with the result that a number of journalists who had been invited to training by their press officer found themselves being manhandled away – without explanation – by local police.

Shehata has never been media-friendly, but his paranoia seems to have been driven to new heights by the identity of their opponents. It was at a World Cup qualifier in 1989 that the rivalry with Algeria became outright hostility. After Egypt had won 1-0, players and officials brawled on the pitch and the Algeria striker Lakhdar Belloumi allegedly blinded the Egypt team doctor by bottling him in the eye. An international arrest warrant against him was only dropped last year.

Relations were hardly improved by the two games in November. First, Algeria claimed their team bus had been stoned in their final qualifier in Cairo, as Egypt won 2-0 to force the play-off, and then both countries reported attacks on their citizens in the other's capital in the aftermath of the game in Omdurman.

Amid the furore, the bald fact of battling for a place in the Cup of Nations final – never mind of preparing for a World Cup group in which Algeria will meet England – seems almost secondary. "It's great to play Egypt again," said the Blackpool forward Hameur Bouazza, who scored Algeria's extra-time winner against Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals. "It gives us a chance to prove that we beat them fairly and not through luck. We won because of hard work and because we have talented players. We have great character and spirit and that is our greatest quality."

Also somewhat obscured by the "hate match" revisited is the fact that the other semi-final also pits two of Africa's great rivals against each other. Ghana and Nigeria have battled for sporting supremacy in Anglophone West Africa since the first inter-colonial events in the thirties. Ghana held the edge until the early 1980s, and after 20 years of Nigerian supremacy, the balance seems to have tipped back towards them, a trend coach Milovan Rajevac believes can be maintained by his young squad, eight of whom were part of the side that won the world Under-20 championship last year. "This is our biggest test," he said, "but they have proved their quality. They are tough."

Bitter rivalries

* The northern countries of Egypt and Algeria have a long-standing rivalry dating back to 1989, when a decisive World Cup qualifier between the two ended in a bloody brawl on and off the pitch, with Egypt's doctor losing an eye.

* Ghana and Nigeria is another keenly contested rivalry defined by location, but the West African neighbours' animosity is not nearly as violent as that of their northern cousins.

Today's semi-finals

Ghana v Nigeria, Luanda, 4pm, Eurosport, BBCi

Algeria v Egypt, Benguela, 7.30pm, Eurosport/BBC 3