This summer, DZfoot offers you a series of articles specifically dedicated to the green of the world. This time it’s Aïssa Mandi’s turn to be the center of attention.
He’s been around for so long we forget he’s only 30 and has many good years ahead of him. With 76 games played in the squad, he is likely to be the one to break Lakhdar Belloumi’s record (97) and reach the symbolic 100 cap mark.
Aïssa Mandi has continued to develop both at club and side and remains a discreet player on and off the pitch. Apart from nice detents in standard situations, which sometimes lead to a goal, he is not particularly characterized by angry tackles or trouser markings. His strength has always been his good understanding of the game, anticipation and good recovery. He’s become the only undeniable rear guard over the years…until now.
A pattern of regularity
His club career has featured just three teams, a testament to the seriousness of character. Mandi started playing at home in Reims at the age of 8 and naturally went through the stages until he turned pro in a legendary club (double finalist in Champions League) which then got promoted. He started out as a senior in the National (3rd tier) just after graduating from high school before fully participating in the Champagne club’s promotion to Ligue 1. Four full seasons at the highest level of French football followed immediately.
After spending a lot of time helping out at left-back but primarily at right-back, the slim (1.86m) defender will have to wait until his final season at Reims to establish himself in the defensive axis. Also in late 2013 and then early 2014, he discovered the Greens at right-back while Madjid Bougherra was still boss.
His very good performances and impeccable behavior immediately caught the eye of Vahid Halilodzic, who is interested in this player profile. At 22, Mandi is playing in a World Cup and if he remains on the bench against Belgium, he will start against South Korea, never to leave the national team again.
At 24, now a clear centre-forward in a two-man hinge or right butt in a three-man defense, Mandi discovers goalscoring talent (11 in two Ligue 1 seasons) and, having also played in a CAN, grows too big for a Stade de Reims falling into Ligue 2 again.
A stint announced at AS Saint-Etienne or Olympique Lyonnais, he will sign with another green-colored club in 2016. Real Betis, second club of the city of Seville, where the native of Châlons-en-Champagne will discover the pressure of the highest European level.
In a Spanish league championship, which fights alongside the English first division team for the title of the best league in the world, Mandi meets the cream of the round ball. His then-coach Gustavo Poyet will put him in the starting XI in his first game at the Camp Nou. The discovery will go smoothly for Mandi, who will endure a complicated season alongside his club, which will suffer heavy six-bust defeats against Barça and Real Madrid.
He has always known how to go through the stages, but at his own pace
The following season becomes more convincing as Bétis finishes 6th overall and qualifies for the Europa League. Aïssa Mandi, comfortable in Spanish and well adapted to his new club, will clearly cross a threshold and excel twice against Real Madrid. Under the orders of Quique Setien, who will later try to win him over when he joins Barça, the Algerian will make great progress. Alongside Marc Bartra or Zouhir Feddal, he’s finally starting to draw the attention of more upmarket clubs, particularly in Italy, his talent and consistency make him a man many would want to rely on.
In the selection, Georges Leekens made him his captain during the disastrous CAN 2017, where he had to fill in the gaps of an inferior team alongside Bensebaini, especially in the axis. He is then sometimes replaced at left-back by Lucas Alcaraz or Rabah Madjer, who prefer Hassani or Chafai. Even Belmadi let him play at full-back in his debut.
In 2018-2019, at the age of 27, he played his first European competition, notably with a double confrontation against AC Milan in the Europa League, but Sétien’s departure would not be successful for players of a very average level in the season, second part of the table. Mandi, on the other hand, still swims irregularly in a Bétis.
In summer 2019 he won the Africa Cup of Nations as a right axis in a hinge he composed with Djamel Benlamri. After being carried around in various positions and sometimes even being questioned about dismissing him for not being comfortable on the right flank, Mandi literally exploded and formed an ironclad defense, conceding just three goals in seven games. He, who knew how to be the confidante of all breeders, is also an undisputed owner in the eyes of Djamel Belmadi, who called on this discreet character to use violence.
Mandi is then at the top. At the club, now under Manuel Pellegrini’s command, he became vice-captain and was recruited by many big clubs. Sevilla FC, Olympique de Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Inter Milan are all interested in the player who is patiently approaching the end of his contract.
He will eventually do what he felt was the safe bet by joining Villarreal, recent Europa League winners and therefore Champions League qualifiers. Much desired by Unai Emery, he therefore chooses a goal that will allow him to discover the C1 at the age of 29, while ensuring him a season that he probably would not have had in Milan, Madrid or Liverpool.
But Mandi’s status has been in question since his European Super Cup debut against Chelsea. As a substitute, he only goes into overtime, as a right flank, and to save a goal that his team will eventually let go. This final, lost by Villarreal, therefore perfectly illustrates Mandi’s season: behind Raúl Albiol (36 years old), Mandi will only play … 24 minutes on the beautiful course of his people in LDC and claim only fourteen La Liga starts. However, this will not allow his people to shine as Villarreal will finish in a sad 7th place, which only allows them to play in the Europa League Conference easy play-offs.
A disappointing two-title season for Mandi, who, like his team-mates in selection, will miss an Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon and then a second World Cup after being eliminated in the play-offs.
At almost 31, Aïssa Mandi doesn’t want to wait any longer, but with Raul Albiol not intending to retire, the Algerian is already having to work hard to find a starting spot at Villarreal…or anywhere else.