The smoothness of their qualifying campaigns, added with the ubiquitous strength in depth in their squad, saw Ivory Coast often arriving to AFCONs since 2008, with the exception of 2015, hailed as mainstream favourites.
The times have now changed for the defending champions. The retirements of the Toure brothers and penalty hero Boubacar Barry, plus an injury to Gervinho, leaves Salomon Kalou as the solitary survivor from the accredited members of the ASEC Mimosas-horned golden generation, diminishing the distinguished within their ranks.
The current crop may not be collectively golden, but they are gifted in their own right. Serge Aurier, 24, and Eric Bailly, 22, all have an AFCON medal to their collection, and they are well on their way to becoming household names in football if they continue their current trajectory.
What’s more, they have the all-action Franck Kessie, the sort of precocious talent that could see scouts making their way to Gabon in droves, and the low-key Jean-Michael Seri, statistically one of the most creative midfielders in Europe this season.
Most important of all, they are not playing with the psychological pressure that sent ripples of anxiety whenever things didn’t go as planned in the past. The triumph in 2015 was the Hollywood happy-ending their predecessors needed and allows the current generation to start on a clean slate, ridding themselves of the residue from the previous one.
That said, the three draws and just one win in a group which had Sudan and Sierra Leone saw qualification become a very nervous affair, with performances lacking the required gusto to pummel poorer opposition.
A shining light in the last year has been the rise of Aston Villa striker Jonathan Kodjia, who has looked far more comfortable in fronting Ivory Coast’s attack than Kalou and Wilfried Bony have during their international careers.
The 27-year-old has rapidly gone on to public opinion; insofar that the initial negative prejudice he faced for being a striker playing in the second tier is now a distant memory. Each of his three goals have been collectors’ items and, if the players behind him stay firm, he could potentially be the tournament’s scintillating, Schillacian late-bloomer that fires Les Elephants to glory.
At AFCON 2015 Herve Renard face-lifted their formation to 3-4-3 / 5-4-1 hybrid a fortnight before the tournament in order to make them less leaky. His departure, and the growth in trust of the defence, has seen the return of the 4-3-3.
Being the defending champions, the probability is that they will need to take the initiative to unlock unadventurous sides. Flying high with Nice in Ligue 1, the pint-sized Jean-Michael Seri, who will be the main creator in a midfield three that includes captain Serey Die and Kessie, could be instrumental, as will Kessie – his barrages into the box and eye for a pass can break down teams.
A strong defence – A shadow of their former attack-over-defence selves, the main strength now lies in their probable backline which essentially names itself from right to left: Serge Aurier, Lamine Kone, Eric Bailly, Wilfried Kanon (or the more attack-minded Adama Traore) and, arguably the best goalkeeper in Africa, TP Mazembe’s Sylvain Gbohouo behind them. That’s four-fifths of the defence from their triumphant 2015 campaign. You can’t win an AFCON with a shoddy defence, and that was largely why it took multiple times of asking before Ivory Coast did.
Issues in attack – They haven’t been all-conquering or consistently played well since their AFCON ecstasy. Their attack will have to function better, especially without Gervinho, and the minimal game time for Bony and Max Gradel at club level not helping their international form. In the case of the latter, the direct replacement could be Wilfried Zaha, who should make his competitive debut at the tournament. Nicolas Pepe is also another option as Michel Dussuyer attempts to refresh the flanks.
Serge Aurier – It feels left-field to single out a right back as a key player, but, as we have seen over the last two years, Aurier is many things, including a player who gives you more than the off-the-shelf right back. This Ivory Coast attack is yet to hit top gear so Aurier’s reliable effectiveness in the final third will be more crucial than ever.
The Hipster’s Choice
Franck Kessie – The 20-year-old is having a stellar breakout season with Atalanta in Serie A. His driving runs, stamina and 6 goals making him one of the individuals at the forefront of the club’s success story. An omission from Herve Renard’s squad in 2015, he should play a central role this time round.
Michel Dussuyer – Coaching in his fifth AFCON, the former goalkeeper’s appointment was seen as a safe pair of hands (pun intended). The majority of his last 15 years in African have been spent with Guinea, where he has not had the resources to mount a credible challenge in a major tournament. He has already been to an AFCON with Ivory Coast – he was assistant to Henri Michel at AFCON 2006, when Ivory Coast’s golden generation announced themselves. Now firmly in the driver’s seat, he will be hoping to create gold dust of his own.
By The Numbers (courtesy of We Global Football)
- The Ivorians have the longest unbeaten run in Africa, with a run of 21 consecutive unbeaten matches dating back to the start of AFCON 2015.
- Their last loss to an African side came all the way back in October 2014. Ironically, that loss was to fellow Group C participant DR Congo.
- Over their past 16 matches, Les Éléphants have conceded just 5 goals. In the 12 matches since Michel Dussuyer has been in charge, just 17 total goals have been scored in the Ivorians’ matches.
- Away from home, the Ivorians have produced even less excitement. 6 of their past 9 matches at away/neutral venues have been goalless draws.
- Despite a lack of goals, no team has actually taken down the Ivory Coast in a very long time. As a result, they are projected to top Group C with 5.35 points in arguably the toughest group.
- The Ivory Coast has a 1 in 6 chance, 16.1%, of repeating as African champions. They are the We Global Football’s pick to hoist the trophy.
Champions – A strong defence easily assures their place in the leading pack of favourites. It will all come down to whether the attack, without Gervinho, can produce the necessary goods.