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May 23, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Ivory Coast

Group C | Colombia | Greece | Japan


Team DNA

With Didier Drogba, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and the irrepressible freak of nature called Yaya Toure, it would be crazy for any coach to set up this team in anything but an attacking way. And Ivory Coast manager Sabri Lamouchi is certainly nowhere near certifiable.

But if he were even to entertain any such ideas, the fragile nature of what passes for a defence would be enough to quickly nip any such insanity in the bud. Such has been the softness of this underbelly that Didier Zokora has been moved from midfield to permanent centre-half.

Lamouchi has been wise enough to continue to build on the aggressive foundations left by his predecessor Francois Zahoui. That means Côte d'Ivoire line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with the key tactical decision being how high, or low, Toure should stay (when he doesn't deliver, they suffer). Gervinho, in the form of his life in Italy, provides pace and guile wide, with support on the other flank from Salomon Kalou.

Wilfried Bony offers additional attacking options and could start ahead of Drogba, whose powers have been on the wane.

Starting scenarios

History

Ivory Coast are set to play in their third consecutive World Cup when they reach Brazil. They failed to advance out of group play in the previous two trips (2006, 2010), posting just one win in each tournament.

How they reached Brazil

The Elephants practically strolled through the first phase of qualifying, with Morocco providing the only real challenge after holding them to two draws in two meetings. The second of those draws came in the final match of the series with qualification already assured and Lamouchi fielding a somewhat weakened team. Those were the only points Ivory Coast dropped as they secured qualification to the playoff round with a game to spare.

But Ivory Coast's weaknesses were exploited by Senegal, who fell just one goal short of condemning the nervous favourites to an embarrassing elimination. Côte d'Ivoire were up 3-0 in the first leg, but their creaky defence allowed a late Papiss Cisse goal to ensure the return fixture (despite the 3-1 win) would be anything but straightforward.

Save for a plethora of misses in the early stages, it would have been the Senegalese traveling to Brazil. Moussa Sow's second-half penalty gave Senegal a 1-0 lead and put Ivory Coast on edge. Kalou's smash and grab in extra time dragged the Ivoriens, players and fans back from the brink of a nervous breakdown.

World Cup teams will hardly be so generous.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Ivory Coast would want to top Group C more than anything else. This would still put them in the crosshairs of either Italy, England or Uruguay, but they would at least have the psychological advantage of knowing they are facing the second-best team in that Group D. With Italy likely to win it, either England or Uruguay would be a quite winnable proposition.

But Ivory Coast would have to beat Colombia to top their group, which would make for a very intriguing second match for both squads.

Other than that, Ivory Coast would love to have another crack at continental rival Nigeria. On their way to a quite unexpected African Nations Cup triumph in 2013, the Super Eagles stunned the Elephants in the quarterfinals. But there is even more history between the two.

Nigeria edged Ivory Coast in World Cup qualifying to reach the tournament for the first time in 1994. Just a few months later, they edged the Elephants on penalties in the 1994 Nations Cup semifinals en route to the title. Drogba & Co. may have exacted some measure of revenge in the past, but none would be sweeter than doing it on the sport's biggest stage.

Most important player

When Lamouchi named his squad, the absence of Emmanuel Eboue raised eyebrows. But it is doubtful the former Arsenal man himself would have been surprised. Long unchallenged as first-choice right, Eboue has seen his position usurped by the French-born Serge Aurier. The 20-year-old more than matches, and even exceeds, Eboue's offensive marauding, but with none of the latter's defensive failings.

On a team where the midfield is sometimes compressed and wide forwards pinch into the middle, width must come from the full-backs, and Aurier is not so highly rated without cause.

And let's not forget that goalkeeper Boubacar Barry's role is key. He can be the savior at the back, like he showed at the 2012 Nations Cup, where he didn't allow a goal for the entire tournament until the Elephants lost to Zambia 8-7 in penalties in the final. But he can also be a master clanger, dropping the howler that eliminates his team from the tournament. Côte d'Ivoire will need the 2012 version to show up in Brazil.

Definition of success

Horrible draws in 2006 and 2010 led to group-stage exits. A combined total of seven points from a maximum 18 over two tournaments was only mitigated by having to contend with Argentina and Netherlands in the first trip, and Brazil and Portugal four years later.

- Video: Mexico odds in World Cup (Australia only)

There will be no such excuse this time. Japan, Colombia and Greece should make for somewhat easy pickings, and advancing to the Round of 16 is expected in what is expected to be the final hoorah for the Golden Generation.

Beyond that, depending on the luck of the draw, reaching the quarterfinals would be a more than satisfactory outcome for a team burdened with the tag of "Africa's hope" but never manages to deliver on the promise.

How far will Ivory Coast go?

The quarterfinals.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Shaka Hislop

As it was in 2010, this is the team everyone expects to go the deepest of the African squads. But they've always managed to undo themselves -- two group-stage exits in the World Cup and two runners-up in the Nations Cup are their best showings in the past decade. But in a group that ranks among the least challenging, this may be their year.

But Lamouchi has failed to establish a clear directive for the team. When you have as many stars as he does, you're tempted to just let these guys play their games. But, as a result, you have roller-coaster shows in form, so you're not exactly sure what the team is trying to do other than allow Drogba and Toure to do whatever they want.

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