AFCON is last-chance saloon for Ivory Coast veterans
The Ivory Coast are nothing if not consistent when it comes to the Africa Cup of Nations. For each of the last five tournaments, they have reached the quarter-finals or better, but have not won it since 1992.
In order to redress this so nearly story, the Elephants have hired the man who masterminded their defeat in the 2012 final with Zambia, Herve Renard. This was only a penalty shoot-out loss, but remains one of the biggest upsets in African football history.
What will Renard bring to the Ivory Coast? Well, his last job was nothing like as successful as that shock he pulled on them almost three years ago. Sochaux lost their Ligue 1 status, and Renard left them after relegation, but he walked into this role on past good work.
Talisman and Elephants record scorer Didier Drogba has retired from international football, however, but there are forwards aplenty to replace him. It may take an ensemble effort, but the talent is clearly there. Giant Monaco frontman Lacina Traore will be a handful, if Renard wants to go direct, and CSKA Moscow’s Seydou Doumbia continues to press his claims.
For a more all-round option, though, look no further than Swansea City striker Wilfried Bony, who managed just the one goal in qualifying. He needs to do better than that. Drogba’s old Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou led the way en route to Equatorial Guinea with four, while wingers Gervinho and Max Gradel chipped in with two apiece.
Supplemented by Manchester City powerhouse and national captain Yaya Toure from midfield, this makes for an impressive front four. Renard has certainly made the Ivory Coast more expansive and open; a point emphasised by them being the nation that conceded the most goals (11) in reaching the finals.
Like Yaya Toure, Newcastle United bruiser Cheick Tiote is a midfield mainstay and his no-nonsense tough-tackling style gives others, including right back Serge Aurier, a great platform to bomb forward. His anchorman assurance does result in a chequered disciplinary record, though.
Behind Tiote are 30-something centre backs Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora, and this is surely the last-chance saloon for either if they are to win anything in international football. All their experience will be essential to a title tilt.
There is no great pace there at the back now, but the ability to read the game and positional sense remain real assets. With Boubacar Barry between the sticks, whose heroics for club side Lokeren foiled Hull City in their bid to reach the Europa League proper, the spine of this Elephants side remains really strong.
Renard’s first priority is to negotiate a tough Group D at the finals, which also contains Cameroon, Guinea and Mali. The Ivory Coast faced the Indomitable Lions in qualifying, and were hammered 4-1 away back in September, but wised up by playing out a goalless draw to subsequently seal their spot at the tournament.
Perhaps being more compact like this would be to the Elephants’ advantage. Guinea look the least threatening on paper, but still have plenty to offer in a pool that would be billed as perilous were it not for the ‘Group of Death’ that contains Algeria, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa.
If the Ivory Coast can hang with their initial opponents, then they can go all the way and end that ‘nearly’ tag for their so-called ‘Golden Generation’.