The mystifying appointment of Sabri Lamouchi, who has no previous coaching experience, has seen a renaissance of the hakuna matata football that made them the neutral’s favourites. Yet this fluid approach has left Les Elephants more exposed – Lamouchi branded his defenders ‘retarded’ after their friendly against Austria in November, despite winning the game 3-0.
Kolo Toure is still a good defender but his partner Sol Bamba has never been entirely convincing, and Jean Jacques Gosso’s defensive combativeness from right-back that we all came to love at the last year, has been sacrificed for the incessant sojourns of Emmanuel Eboue, who we also all love anyway, into opposition territory. Boubacar Barry is seen as the weakest link but that is particularly harsh on the Tupac doppleganger, for he is arguably the best African goalkeeper. Still, even with the jitters in this defence you’d be hard pressed to find a defence with a better understanding of each other’s games, which they showcased in times of uncertainty in the play-off versus Senegal.
Equally, you’d be hard pressed to find a better midfield machine in the tournament. Under the tutelage of Lamouchi, the carte blanche to drive forward has been granted to Yaya Toure, while his brothers in arms, Didier Zokora and Cheick Tiote, offer a combination of simplicity, thuggery and protection through the core that only Ghana can rival. Good luck getting through that lot with vuvuzelas fizzing through your ear canals and a layer of perspiration is atop your skin.
Up front, Didier Drogba leads the line as the lone striker in a role that is reminiscent of that he played at Chelsea. Gervinho switches between enchanting and infuriating on the left flank but does occasionally produce a belter in this somewhat less demanding atmosphere. Even if Gervinho decides to become a dud there shouldn’t be a problem; after all, the emergence of Max Gradel on the right wing since the turn of the year has given Les Elephants another jewel in the crown. The AS Saint Etienne winger has rendered Salomon Kalou to the bench after a string of impressive performances in the last Cup of Nations and the friendlies thereafter.
The grandeur of the Ivory Coast transcends the first XI. Such is their strength in depth that they afforded to leave out Drogba, Yaya Toure, Zokora and a few others and still managed to trounce Austria – a respectable European side – 3-0 on their own patch. With the likes of Seydou Doumbia, Abdul-Kader Keita and Jean-Jacques Gosso left out of the tournament squad, make no mistake about it: every single player here has earned their place.
Can they finally win it?
The Ivory Coast have almost everything they need to win – experience, depth to cope with injuries to key players and/or change games, creativity, goals, an incredibly tight-knit squad, and come into the tournament on an impressive 24-match unbeaten run that stretches back from November 2010. Out of all the sides in the competition, then, they have the least questions next to their name. The key, as ever, is whether they can overcome that asphyxiating final hurdle.
Coach: Sabri Lamouchi
Once a dynamic midfielder for Parma in Italy, Lamouchi, who is of Tunisian descent, won 12 caps for France. The 41-year-old was in the squad that reached the semi-finals of Euro ’96 and won Ligue 1 with both Auxerre and Monaco.
Key player: Didier Drogba
It’s an obvious choice, but the ex-Chelsea striker’s big-game bravura, completeness and leadership skills are crucial. Ivory Coast may have a phalanx of good and very good forwards on the bench, but their 4-3-3 system is tailored to Drogba and no other striker has shown they have the all-round attributes to replace him.
One to watch: Wilfried Bony
With Ivory Coast’s formation only suited to a single striker, and with Drogba hogging that role, we may not see much of the Bony but he usually makes an impact from the bench. Unorthodox in the way that he fuses his top-heaviness with great acceleration over short distances, ‘Daddy Cool’, as he’s affectionately known by the Vitesse Arnhem faithful, is the latest Dutch Eredivisie goal machine with 16 goals in 18 matches.