Cote d’Ivoire: Elephants in the Room
Despite replacing their manager after the 2014 World Cup, very little has changed for the Cote d’Ivoire on the pitch since their first-round disappointment in Brazil.
The majority of the starting XI will be familiar to those who watched the Elephants’ struggles against Colombia and Greece this summer.
Herve Renard has stuck with Sabri Lamouchi’s 4-3-3 formation.
In-form Gervinho, now recovered from his catastrophic collapse of 2012, will start on the left of the front three and has the potential to be one of the stars of the tournament. On the right, Max Gradel has been a regular, although Salomon Kalou proved his worth with four goals in two games during qualification. He may play on the right in a 4-3-3 or just off the striker in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1.
The identity of the central striker (and the sub-plot of the search for Didier Drogba’s successor) is yet to be settled. Wilfried Bony, Seydou Doubmia (having decided international retirement was not for him) and Lacina Traore all featured during qualification, although only one, Bony, managed to find the net and score in the same fixture.
The Swansea City man is arguably the strongest candidate, although he was dropped for Traore for the Elephants’ last two qualifiers.
Yaya Toure, coming into form once more for Manchester City, will sit at the pinnacle of the midfield three, supported competently by fit-again Cheick Tiote and the energetic whilom winger Serey Die.
Saint-Etienne’s Ismael Diomande is a more conservative backup option for either man, although it would be interesting to see Metz’s former France U-21 international Cheick Doukoure make his debut.
Despite possessing Africa’s finest full-back—Serge Aurier—defence is a grave concern for Renard.
Following the World Cup he boldly axed the veteran pair Didier Zokora and Kolo Toure (prompting both to retire from international football) and turned to younger options, with players such as Franck Kessie, Ousmane Viera and Lamine Kone being given the chance in central areas.
The defence were, however, destroyed by Cameroon in Yaounde, prompting Renard to twist once more.
The hapless Sol Bamba was cast away (and hasn’t been seen since), with Arthur Boka also dropped from the squad.
Montpellier veteran Siake Tiene returned on the left, having been overlooked for Brazil, while Renard also recalled Kolo for the final two qualifiers. The Liverpool defender has confirmed that he will retire for good after the Afcon, but will surely claim a starting berth in Equatorial Guinea.
The defensive situation improved during the qualifying programme, helped, possibly, by the coach’s decision to drop long-term Number One (and long-term liability) Copa Barry and give Sylvain Gbohouo a chance to shine.
If Renard can work with a defensive unit of Gbohouo-Tiene-Viera-Kolo-Aurier, and ensure that they are protected by Tiote, there’s reason for optimism. It’s easy to forget that less than three years ago the Elephants managed a Cup of Nations record by going through the whole tournament without conceding a goal.