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Elephants favourites for the Cup

After an epic battle between Africa's two top nations in Sekondi's Takoradi Stadium the Ivory Coast emerged victorious and the Nigerians were vanquished, and so there now seems to be no logical reason for the Elephants to leave the Gold Coast country of Ghana before the final game of this year's African Cup of Nations.

In fact if they do not drink from the cup this time around they will only have themselves to blame.

If you were one of those critics who thought the last-minute coaching change would affect team chemistry, think again. The Ivorians did not miss a beat against Nigeria; their biggest and probably only test in the competition.

Frenchman Gerard Gili might have been announced as a late replacement for Uli Stielike, but that now seems unlikely to affect the team during the competition. Afterall, Gili was an assistant on the same team to former coach Henri Michel at the last Nations Cup and World Cup, so he is familiar with a group of professionals that have played together for the past two years.

What many critics need to appreciate is the depth of Ivorian football, give them more credit and recognise that even with a Berti Vogts or Carlos Alberto Parreira coaching your team, the players still have to get the job done on the pitch. The last, and only, time they won it all was in 1992 and in African football that is an eternity.

At the '92 tournament in Senegal, the Ivory Coast thought they paraded some of the best players in their history, but today they actually have a better team. It's not because of their fancy European clubs and nice bank accounts, but rather the respect they command from their opponents and team-mates at all levels.

With an abundance of exquisitely talented players, which every African would dream of having in their side, this West African nation is unmatched in almost every position by any of its competition at this year's event.

In attack the mere mention of Didier Drogba sends chills down the spine of opposing defenders. Just ask Rio Ferdinand and Philippe Senderos how difficult it was handling Drogba at last year's FA Cup and Carling Cup finals respectively. His three goals in those two matches were instrumental in Chelsea winning both trophies last season.

Asides the cups, Drogba's goals, 33 of them in all competitions last season, were central as the Blues kept close tabs on eventual Premier League champions Manchester United. His goals are a testament to his true quality as a great finisher, but he also possesses the ability to draw multiple defenders to himself; leaving others open. Plus you cannot ignore his passing abilities and physical presence.

While Drgoba is still recovering from a knee injury, which was obvious in recent performances in England and against Nigeria, it is important to remember that he is not alone up front for his country.

From a rich list of Ivorian attackers, it would be tough for any coach to pick a striking partner for Drogba. Though he raises the level of their game, these guys are top class in their own right and they all deserve to start.

Did you witness Salomon Kalou weave his way through the Nigerian back line? That was a great display from a player who rides the bench at Chelsea. Kalou is not your quintessential striker, but a great energetic, support player to call on from the bench and it's no surprise that for both club and country he plays that role to perfection. Imagine what he could do as a starter for a top club in Serie A or La Liga?

If Kalou comes off your bench regularly, think of the concept of pairing Drogba with Arouna Kone or Boubacar Sanogo and not forgetting Arouna Dindane? All three strikers are lethal finishers and routinely punish any defender prone to a lapse in concentration.

Some of these Ivorians, like Kalou, could have chosen to play for other countries instead. In fact Kalou almost played for the Netherlands at the 2006 FIFA World Cup; If he had not been worthy of a spot, former Dutch great Marco Van Basten would not have clamoured to get his citizenship sorted out so he could be on his team.

The Ivorian defence, along with their midfield, is only matched by a couple of African nations like Nigeria and Ghana.

Kolo Toure is the ever-reliable stopper any coach would want as part of his line-up, plus he's not too bad when called upon in attacking set pieces.Just sit back and imagine a pairing of Didier Zokora and Toure at central defence with Yaya Toure in a holding midfield spot, or even better Zokora and Yaya in the middle of the pack like we witnessed against Nigeria?

The thought of those three players together in any rearguard or midfield can result in migraine for an opposing coach. Zokora has played as a central defender this season for his English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, a display of versatility.

Another versatile player on the team is Emmanuel Eboue who can play at both right fullback and on the right side of the midfield; Arsene Wenger would agree, he has Eboue as a winger this season.

Their biggest weakness is their goalkeeping and Boubacar Barry epitomises the problem. Though he replaces Jean-Jacques Tizie, Barry has failed to impress on a team flooded with quality. If they are to win the Nations Cup, Barry will have to perform at a higher level.

Ironically the last time the Elephants won the coveted trophy, they had one of the best hands in the business in Alain Gouamene; however the same cannot be said for Barry who is an obvious starting choice over lesser competitions Tiassa Kone and Stephan Loboue.

No other African team is blessed with this level of quality players. There are always a couple of nations mentioned by pundits as possible Nations Cup winners like Ghana, Egypt and Nigeria, but none at present can boost such cohesiveness, youthful exuberance, quality passing, dexterity and finishing now accustomed the new West African giant; The Elephants of Ivory Coast.

Sulaiman Folarin is a writer with ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPNsoccernet covering world football and MLS. He can be contacted at sulaiman4real@yahoo.com.


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