Jun 1, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
Getting to know…Ivory Coast: Possibly Africa’s strongest contender this year, Les Elephants have a strong squad but surprisingly a weak history as a soccer nation as far as results go.
The Ivory Coast has never escaped from the group stage of the World Cup, with this year being just their third go at the competition. In addition, they’ve been relative newcomers on the African stage, with just one previous win in the African Cup of Nations (1992) and only in the past four competitions have they put together a string of deep runs.
However, if there’s one knock on the Ivorian team, it’s that years of building from the ground up has seen it run with a core group of players for years now, and that core is aging. The Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya are 33 and 31 respectively, and while the younger of the two seems to just be peaking now, he too may not have many years left on the international stage.
But there is also relief coming. Wilfried Bony looks poised to take 36-year-old Didier Drogba’s place once the ageless wonder finally calls it quits, with Lacina Traore there to add another young attacking threat as well. While he’s often a red card waiting to happen, midfield enforcer Chieck Tiote is there to help Yaya Toure if his legs do indeed tire.
It’s a strong squad, both literally and figuratively, and the typically African style of play could take them to new heights in Brazil.
Record in qualifying: The Ivorians dominated its CAF qualification group of Morocco, Tanzania, and Gambia, going undefeated throughout group play with four wins and two draws. In the knockout round they drew Senegal, and a 3-1 home victory in the first leg gave them room to work with, and they put Senegal down with a 1-1 draw in the second leg. Salomon Kalou finished the competition with five goals, one behind the leading tally of six.
A look at Group C: Ivory Coast could be Africa’s strongest squad, but they also have the best chance to advance for another reason: their group is, at first glance, soft. It’s not “easy” as there are no easy groups once you get to the big show, but is doesn’t seem to be powerful. Colombia is facing a defensive crisis, Greece possibly overperformed during UEFA qualification, and Japan has a few top talents but as a team isn’t exactly a contender.
The Elephants have their own issues to deal with, but they look poised for the knockout round should they capitalize on their less challenging group.
14 June, 21:00 ET, Recife: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
19 June, 12:00 ET, Brasilia: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast
24 June, 16:00 ET, Fortaleza: Greece vs. Ivory Coast
Star player: Yaya Toure
Fresh off winning the Premier League title, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure is looking now to lead his country to success as well. With Didier Drogba likely on the final legs of his international career, the 36-year-old has shown his age this past year at Galatasaray, and it’s Toure’s time to assert his dominance in the midfield.
He’s known for his midfield presence, his incredible precision, and his free kicks, but there’s no doubt that Toure can score goals. He has a cannon of a right foot, and with 20 goals for City last season, Toure will look to add to Drogba and Bony’s production up front. With Toure giving defenders yet another body to think about, this attack is dangerous if it fulfills its potential.
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi
French-born and of Tunisian descent, the Ivory Coast position is Lamouchi’s first managerial job after a successful European career came to an end in 2009. Lamouchi spent time as a player at Monaco, Inter, and Marseille before finishing up in the Qatari league. He also earned 12 caps for the French national team.
The 42-year-old was appointed just a week before World Cup qualifying began in 2012, but assimilated well into the fold and kept his country from faltering as the continent’s number 1 seed. It was a curious appointment at the time, considering his predecessor Francois Zahoui had just led the Ivory Coast to the finals of the African Cup of Nations, losing to Zambia. Discussions began to keep Zahoui, the first and only Ivorian to ever coach the team, at the helm but those negotiations broke down and Lamouchi was brought in.
Lamouchi has admitted the hardest part of his job at the moment is taking a squad of players all at completely different fitness levels after the club season and getting them to work together while also leveling out their fitness. However, his
Secret Weapon: Experience
Experience is often used as a euphemism for “age” and in this case that’s not totally untrue, but it’s impossible to ignore the international careers of many in the squad. Defenders Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora both have over 100 caps, as does Didier Drogba up front, but those aren’t the only experienced members.
Gervinho and Salomon Kalou both have over 50 caps and are both 27 and 28 respectively, and both are coming off positive club seasons – Gervinho in particular. Cheik Tiote, Sol Bamba, and Seydou Doumbia all have World Cup experience and are under the age of 30. This is a team that has been here before, and that should absolutely help them overcome a few weaknesses.
Prediction: Given the opportunity of a softer group, the Ivorians take advantage. Signs point to a letdown from Greece, and that should allow Côte d’Ivoire to leapfrog and earn their first-ever knockout round berth.
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