Ivory Coast have just about recovered from the disaster of Marc WIlmots’ reign. The disintegration finished a run of three consecutive World Cup appearances and in came long time servant and intermittent caretaker coach Ibrahim Kamara.
The tremors of Wilmots’ downfall were apparent in the summer of 2017 when Guinea beat Ivory Coast in Abidjan in the AFCON qualifying opener. That was the beginning of the end as a side that didn’t have a plan quickly unravelled when they came up against the creative intelligence of Naby Keita.
Things have steadied since then. The players that excited so many prior to the last Cup of Nations still remain. Franck Kessie and Jean Michael Seri are now sure-fire starters in midfield while Wilfried Zaha and Nicholas Pepe have enhanced their reputations.
Kamara has steadied the ship while not doing any evolution or revolution but just getting them here. After that opening matchday defeat there was work to do, including an awkward-looking double-header against the Central African Republic where they escaped with four points. That, plus a draw in Conakry to Guinea, was enough to confirm them as runners-up from their group.
There was a feeling at the last AFCON that Ivory Coast didn’t have a gameplan, particularly when they came up against a Morocco side managed by the wily Herve Renard. That same match in this edition will be a good barometer of the state of this team.
Unlike in the last edition, they are not the defending champions. That means that for the first time since prior to the inauguration of the golden generation Ivory Coast are not been touted as contenders. That may suit them just fine.
An injury to Eric Bailly will see a tweak in defence otherwise goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo, Serge Aurier and Wilfried Kanon, all AFCON title winners, should remain part of the defence. The midfield is likely to see a trio of Serey Die and Franck Kessie with Jean-Michael Seri ahead of them. The latter is the creative engine in midfield and he has grown into the Ivorian jersey in the last year, showing he can pick out the passes he often did at Nice. Up front, the wingers are the key to carving out opportunities and how Ivory Coast fair will hinge on their productivity.
Strength down the wings – Ivory Coast have two wingers in Wilfried Zaha and Nicholas Pepe that can produce a moment of brilliance at any point in a game and will pose a problem for any defenders in the competition. The other options there are also very useful, like Max Gradel and Max Cornet, who regularly perform well in the orange shirt, and Young Boys’ Roger Assale.
The Achilles’ Heel
An out and out striker – There was a time when Ivory Coast were spoilt for choice in this position and making the squad alone was a privilege for a centre forward, even if they were going to tournament as merely tourists. Jonathan Kodjia hasn’t been a regular starter this season for Aston Villa while the other option Wilfried Bony, who won AFCON in 2015, isn’t the man he was a few years ago.
He has had a mixed season at club level but Serge Aurier is now one of the senior players in this squad devoid of ‘characters’ and the captain. More mature performances from him, particularly on the defensive side, will be expected if Ivory Coast are to play to their potential. He has often ignored that part of his game and rest assured Herve Renard will get his Morocco side to target him again.
The Hipster’s Choice
Max Gradel is another remnant of Ivory Coast’s 2015 victory but he is still criminally understated due to his unfussy style of play. He’s supremely consistent for the Elephants and often comes up with the crucial goals and moments.
For a long time the firefighter and trusted right-hand man of the football federation, Ibrahim Kamara has finally jumped onto the hot seat. He has managed Ivory Coast at various levels in the national team set up, from the youth sides, to the local sides and now the senior team.
If they can get their act together they have the players to be contenders to win the whole thing. The lack of a visible gameplan makes it hard to back them, though.