Match Report: Belgium 2-2 Ivory Coast

Gradel In some quarters, this was a risky friendly for the Ivory Coast to immerse themselves in. In the latest FIFA rankings they have tumbled from 17th to 23rd; trending that, FIFAstically, they are on the decline. Though still the highest ranked African team, a comprehensive beating – say, similar to the 4-1 obliteration they suffered to Mexico in August last year - by a Belgium side fancied by many to ignite the fireworks at the upcoming World Cup would have sparked an almighty post-mortem, a clamour to reconstruct a team when there’s little time left for large-scale regeneration projects, and plunge the position of Sabri Lamouchi into precariousness.

For much of the game, that ominous feeling seemed to be prevalent as Belgium dominated in front of a sold out King Baudouin Stadium. Field-testing their World Cup tactics, Belgium absorbed pressure during the opening 10 minutes of the game while the Ivorians showed they can be patient on the ball albeit with little penetration.

Belgian pressure ensued thereafter, which should have seen them out of sight. The simple use of width and basic movement saw the Ivorian backline stretched to the brim and incessantly incongruous. Kolo Toure ran around like a man who had lost his kids in a shopping centre, and Didier Zokora, though lacking aerial commandment, proved the proponent of last-ditch defending once again. Belgium’s wingers, Kevin Mirallas and Dries Mertens, had plenty of space on the wings to portray their deviousnes, particularly down the left flank where the forward-minded Arthur Boka was often too sucked in. With Didier Drogba and Wilfried Bony on the bench, in Salomon Kalou the Ivorians lacked the all-rounder to spearhead their attack in their 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 system. The lack of fluency was exacerbated with Gervinho uncharacteristically out of sorts and Giovanni Sio, a surprise starter, anonymous on the right wing.

The Red Devils opened scoring in the 17th minute when Marouane Fellaini shrugged off Serge Aurier to head past debutant goalkeeper Sayouba Mande, who was starting in place of the injured Boubacar Barry. Mande, aged just 20, had nerves which were understandable and palpable. Inevitably, Mande was culpable for Belgium’s second goal on the 51st minute, failing to protect his near post as he saved a low cross-borderline-shot by Naingollan from the left wing straight into his own net.

Les Elephants could have cowered with that deficit, but they showed commendable courage instead. It was the regal runs of Yaya Toure which lead the charge, cleverly releasing half-time sub Constant Djakpa twice down the left for cut-backs which were never converted but nevertheless gave them belief. Yaya Toure was decisive in the end, his cross down the right finding its way through a corridor of Belgian bodies before falling to the feet of Didier Drogba, also half-time sub, who wriggled the ball through Vincent Kompany before finishing low past Thibault Courtois.

At 2-1 down and with 7 minutes to go, Yaya Toure was withdrawn for Bony, leaving some wondering whether that was that. Bony had a good chance to level matters, but instead of finishing first-time he was smothered by Nicolas Lombaerts before he could pull the trigger. Still, and deservedly so, the Ivorians would achieve what their hard work deserved. Zokora’s free-kick three minutes into injury time was comically cleared by Belgium, eventually falling to substitute Max Gradel just outside the box, and his left foot wrapped around the ball for it to trickle low past Courtois’ right.

With that equaliser, Gradel completed a worthy, thoroughly deserved fightback in what Les Elephants will try to use as a launchpad for the World Cup. This match was either one which would showcase Ivory Coast’s plight or encouraged them about their predicament. In the end, it proved the latter, as they tapped into the mental reservoirs that may prove pivotal during the World Cup, and three of Lamouchi’s four substitutes – Djakpa, Drogba and Gradel – were undeniably vindicated. Although they didn’t record a win, out of all the African World Cup candidates we saw on Wednesday, it was the Ivorians that walked away with the most self-assured, two-shouldered stance.

Man of the Match: Serey Die

The most impressive performance of the night came from midfield madman Serey Die. Tasked to solely manhandle the midfield with an indifferent Cheick Tiote sitting beside him, the Basel midfielder’s typical bullishness in midfield was in excelsis. He disrupted the rhythm with his streetwise tackling (which also included an obligatory yellow card), and distributed the ball assiduously to the flanks for the Ivorian wide men to exploit the makeshift Belgian full-backs.

Ivory Coast XI: Mande; Aurier, Kolo Toure, Zokora, Boka (Djakpa 46′), Die, Tiote, Yaya Toure (Bony 83′), Gervinho (Gradel 64′), Sio (Drogba 46′), Kalou.

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