Ivory Coast: Team Preview 2014 FIFA World Cup
Not yet 60 years old as a football federation, the Ivory Coast are still finding their feet, and their international stumbles on the main stage are undeniable proof of exactly that. And although the last 20 years have borne witness to a meteoric rise to fame and fortune for many of Africa's most respected and revered talents, it remains a realistic state of affairs that the continent's domestic game is lightyears away from the glitz and glamour of the European stalwarts.
Yet, with the international scene becoming increasingly annexed from excitement in the minds of many, it remains a rare hunting-ground for the best of the best to make a name for themselves and to put national pride before club commitments.
Entering the 2014 World Cup finals with a squad that possesses some of the best names in the business, there is little reason for Les Elephantes to fear the task that awaits them – many of them have been on big stages like this many times over, and if Ivorian football continues to flourish and produce such skilful talents in the coming years, they will be here countless times to come.
But there is a silent sense of exasperation emanating from their fans. Having seen their team flounder on two consecutive occasions now, there’s been a real palpability in the air as the weeks have ticked slowly by.
And while this tournament is not a “do or die”, by any stretch of the imagination, it is one which some of their brightest talents will look to hit hard once the action kicks off in a few days time – some of them might not be around for the Russian installment in 2018, after all. In truth, they’ve underachieved in the last few years, and although they’ve played some nice football, they just never appeared to have the hunger or the determination to push through and to have a lasting impact on the competition.
And as they have yet to make it past the group stage, they are likely to be willed on by that niggling shortcoming; it might just drive them to make history, something that would make this tournament one that would live long in the memory.
Road to the World Cup
Topping Group C in the CAF World Cup qualifying phase, it’s fair to say that Ivory Coast were on cruise control as they glided past Morocco, Tanzania and Gambia to finish with an impressive 14 points, conceding a mere five goals en route to a memorable campaign.
Following that, they were drawn against a plucky Senegal side in a two-legged play-off, and after the first leg finished 3-1 in favour of Sabri Lamouchi’s charges, it was clear they held the impetus heading into the deciding match in Casablanca one month later.
And with a nervy atmosphere and tensions abound, Didier Drogba and company did ever-so-well to keep their cool as they held out to go through 4-2 on aggregate; Salomon Kalou grabbing a 92nd minute leveller to end the second leg 1-1 after Senegalese substitute Moussa Sow had netted a 78th-minute penalty to give them a very slender chance.
Overall, they coasted early on, conserving their energy for when they needed it most, showing their strength at a critical time, in the dying embers of such a key game, and they’ll be happy with how they performed – looking relatively solid at the back against the weaker teams, and clinical in front of goal when it mattered.
Lamouchi’s 28-man provisional squad is an impressively strong selection of players that combines an ideal mix of proven winners, budding superstars as well as youthful exuberance.
Everything considered, it’s a very positive pool of performers – and, in particular, their offensive options are awash with goal-scoring potential. With Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Wilfried Bony, Ivorian supporters won’t feel too worried about their side getting the goals they need. Former Chelsea star, and towering goal-getter, Drogba in particular is perhaps their most sure-fire way of rattling the net. With years of experience at the highest level, there isn’t any defence he can’t unlock – he’ll be a massive asset to them.
But, at the heart of this side, as the conductor of this hugely promising team sits Premier League champion and midfield maestro, Yaya Toure.
In truth, if their fans on the west coast of Africa are to see their side safely navigate their way through a highly tricky few opening matches, Toure will need to be on top form. He links the play with such unrivalled strength, composure and close-control that he is going to be such a massive component to their challenge. And with the 31-year-old seemingly out to prove himself to all of his apparent suitors, he is certain to play to his utmost capabilities – defences everywhere are sure to be on high alert.
However, defensively speaking, in the middle of the park they are not without their obvious weaknesses. And with only Saint-Etienne’s Ismael Diomande as a real back-up, should Toure get injured, they might just get over-run in the middle of the park.
Without a top-class goalkeeper to rely upon, though, and with perhaps only two truly world-class defenders, they may also have to depend on luck a lot more than they’d wish; some last-gasp, desperate defending is something that might become a recurring feature in their 2014 World Cup highlight reel if they don’t act accordingly.
Having defended reasonably well against minnows such as Tanzania and Gambia, they still are yet to prove themselves against the offensive might of some of the best strikers in the business.
Goalkeepers: Copa Barry (Lokeren), Gbohouo Sylvain (Sewe Sport), Sayouba Mandé (Stabaek), Badra Ali (ASEC Mimosas).
Defenders: Kolo Touré (Liverpool), Bamba Souleyman (Trabzonspor), Jean Daniel Akpa Akpro (Toulouse), Arthur Boka (Stuttgart), Serges Aurier (Toulouse), Brice Dja Djédjé (Marseille), Didier Zokora (Without club), Constant Djapka (Frankfurt), Viera Diarassouba (Caykur Rizespor), Benjamin Angoua Brou (Valenciennes).
Midfielders: Cheick Tioté (Newcastle), Yaya Touré (Manchester City), Max-Alain Gradel (St Etienne), Ismaël Diomandé (St Etienne), Didier Ya Konan (Hannover 96), Geoffroy Serey Dié (Basel).
Strikers: Wilfried Bony (Swansea), Didier Drogba (Galatasaray), Gervinho (AS Roma), Giovanni Sio (Basel), Seydou Doumbia (CSKA Moscow), Lacina Traoré (Monaco), Salomon Kalou (Lille), Mayhis Bolly (Dussledorf).
The youngest of all the managers at this summer’s football-fest, Sabri Lamouchi will be hoping to cause a massive upset or two during his side’s time in Brazil.
A former Ligue 1 champion on two separate occasions with both AJ Auxerre and AS Monaco during the 90’s as a player, as well as having notched up 12 caps with the France national team, 42-year-old Lamouchi is now looking to bring his winners’ mentality to the biggest stage of them all.
By discarding the ageing N’dri Romaric and Jean-Jacques Gosso-Gosso as well as axing Siaka Tiene, Sabri Lamouchi has attempted to make some cohesive steps towards planning for the future as well as doing his best to give some of the best young talents available a chance to shine.
An adaptable coach, Lamouchi was drafted in as a replacement for Francois Zahoi just five days before the qualification process began and has proven himself a very competent strategist in the last two years, despite one or two potentially debilitating flaws.
Importantly, though, he hasn’t been the least bit reckless in his changes and rearrangements and has entered into the process with a clear and precise plan – none of his changes are for change’s sake, and none of them seem to have been carried out hastily. Admittedly, they do need some reinforcements in the middle of the park and at the back, but it seems as though the boss is out to bestow confidence on the young pretenders, not to throw them in at the deep end.
All this seems even more level-headed when you recall that Lamouchi was himself axed from France's final squad for the World Cup on home soil back in 1998 – a tournament they would, of course, go on to win. So, he’ll be all too aware of the pain that comes with being left out, but also he’ll know just what kind of rewards can come from making such tough decisions.
With an achievable goal on their hands in Group C, it might just be that Lamouchi’s bold changes will be the difference this time around.
Formations and Tactics
Resisting the urge to adapt to different formations might well be the coach's biggest oversight, and if they’re unlucky, it might just be the flaw their opponents successfully exploit.
Adhering to a 4-3-3 formation that rarely changes, the 2012 African Cup of Nations runners-up have already given away their gameplan before the tournament has even kicked-off, and although their intentions are incredibly transparent, they do possess something that even the most genius of counter-tactics often find arduous to outdo; their physical strength.
Back in 2010, of the five teams that made it to South Africa, a solitary survivor emerged from the rubble of the group stages – Ghana. After that, they went on a mini-miracle-run to reach the last eight against Uruguay where they were harshly undone by some unsportsmanlike behaviour on the part of a still vilified Luis Suarez.
But the fact that just one team from the continent of Africa made it so far tells its own story – many of them failed to think up a plan B before they took to the field, an although their efforts were valiant, their inability to think outside the box was a huge factor in their undoing – and Ivory Coast were none less guilty than any of the others.
This time around, while it's all very well to have a style they feel comfortable in, they’ll need to conjure up an emergency plan if they’re to avoid disappointment once again.
Alternatively, a 5-4-1 set-up, with a deep-sitting defence would afford them the option to hit teams on the counter-attack, and should they manage to have the added luxury of resting some players in the latter stages of the group, they could draft in Diomande to conserve Yaya Toure for bigger matches. The 21-year-old St. Etienne midfielder could martial the defence behind him and stick to helping out at the back.
Ideally, this system would work best with a one-goal cushion coming into the last 30 minutes, or against a technically superior outfit.
Using their only striker as a target point would play right into Didier Drogba's hands – he's proven himself a resourceful one-man attack on numerous occasions in that situation, and with some pacy wingers down the flanks such as Kalou, his aerial prowess would come into its own should they provide the right delivery. Aditionally, Seydou Doumbia could fill in for Drogba, and the wingers would have to track back more to offer some much-needed support, particularly against the stronger teams.
Employing Gervinho, Wilfried Bony or even Tiote as the ball-carrying relief between defence and attack could allow the Ivorians to break away with some speed, flooding the space behind the striker, especially if they could spread the play successfully out to the wingers hugging the touchlines. A system that would sap their energy quite severely, Lamouchi's charges might need to reserve this as a last resort – but it's a second option, something they’ll certainly need eventually.
Best Starting XI
Goalkeeper: Boubacar Barry
Defenders: Arthur Boka, Souleymane Bamba, Kolo Toure & Serge Aurier
Midfielders: Serey Die, Yaya Toure & Cheick Tiote
Forwards: Salomon Kalou, Gervinho & Didier Drogba
History at the World Cup
|1930||Did Not Enter|
|1974||Did Not Qualify|
Best Performance in a World Cup
There really aren’t that many precedents to choose from for fans of Ivorian football.
In 2006, they were drawn in Group C alongside Argentina, the Netherlands as well as Serbia and Montenegro, and they fell to defeat twice, losing 2-1 against both the Argentines and the Dutch – but they proved they could get points on the board in their first-ever outing by coming from behind to defeat the Serbians 3-2; Salomon Kalou grabbing an 86th minute penalty.
Then, in 2010, they befell the same fate as they were drawn in yet another tough group with Brazil, Portugal and the competition's whipping boys, North Korea. Portugal were viewed largely as their competitors for second place, and despite managing a draw against them as well as hammering the Korans 3-0, Portugal emerged from Group G by virtue of the fact they had drawn with Brazil.
Reflecting back on their past performances doesn’t reveal a whole lot of positives for them – or a whole lot of anything they can learn from, but with a new-look squad coming into the finals this time, as well as the added experience some of their top players have garnered in the last four years, it might just be time for them to break the mould and look to the future.
Truth be told, this group is the easiest one they’ve been dealt in their short World Cup history so far, and it is certainly their best bet of making it to the knockout phase – it's up to them to seize the moment.
Prediction – How far can they go?
At the very least, they should make it out of their group, and after that, it all depends on how favourable the draw is to them.
Romantics might suggest that Les Elephantes have the capacity to go as far as the quarter-final stage before they get shot down, whereas the cynics would see them fall in the second-round. No question, the potential swansong of Didier Drogba will play a major role in their propulsion out of the group alongside Japan and ahead of either Colombia or Greece, and after that, it’s up to them just how far their determination will take them.
If Toure, Drogba, Bony and Cheik Tiote can play to their potential, they’ll make light work of those around them, initially, and after that they might need a bit of luck.
To see other Team Previews : 2014 FIFA World Cup Team Previews