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Ivory Coast

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 By Sam Crocker

Gervinho vital to knockout-stage hopes

Gervinho scored the go-ahead goal and the Ivory Coast completed a two-goal comeback to defeat Japan 2-1.

In some ways, it seems a bit bizarre to even discuss the idea of confidence with regards to footballers. With seemingly the world at their feet and doing what they love, playing at a level that one in a hundred try and fail to reach, a player's self-assurance seems a given.

But contrary to popular belief, football players are actually human. While the uninitiated might think they are little more than commodities, bought and sold based upon their usefulness to their owner, their feelings are as real as any other person on this planet.

Gervinho is one player who knows this all too well. His confidence in many ways is his defining characteristic, affecting his performance perhaps more than any other player in the game today.

No two games better put this into context than the semifinal and final of the 2012 African Cup of Nations.

Seconds before halftime in the semifinal against Mali, Gervinho received the ball just inside his own half. He anticipated Ousmane Berthe approaching from behind at speed, and used his first touch to slide it straight through the Malian's legs. Eight second later, the ball was in the net.

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His solo effort occurred over the space of 50 metres and used just four touches before the fifth slotted the ball into the far corner from a narrow angle. This would be the goal that sent Ivory Coast through to the final.

Four days later, and Gervinho found himself watching his teammates' attempts to claim the silverware their combined talent deserved. Eighth in line for spot kicks, and with the previous seven successful penalties for both teams making it 7-7, it was Gervinho's turn to step up. But he didn't.

A sudden crisis of confidence meant that an unprepared Kolo Toure was forced to take the eighth penalty instead, and the resulting miss gave Zambia the advantage. Rainford Kalaba's ensuing miss gave Gervinho the opportunity to make amends. After a pep talk from captain Didier Drogba, the then-Arsenal man side-footed his penalty high and wide. Stoppila Sunzu then scored the penalty that would crown Zambia as champions of Africa.

It is hard to identify the cause of this stark contrast. It could be argued that the nature which he moves with the ball can be to his detriment at times. Scatty and impulsive, his lack of technical ability makes him puzzling to watch, as if reactive signals are relayed between his mind and his feet rather than working in concert to execute a choreographed movement.

Gervinho scored the Ivory Coast's winner against Japan.
Gervinho scored the Ivory Coast's winner against Japan.

When confident and in control, Gervinho is spellbinding. Self-doubting and out of control, he is ineffective and eye-gougingly frustrating to watch.

Luckily for fans of Les Elephants, Gervinho's performances for his country tend to lean more towards that semifinal showing against Mali than the self-destruction witnessed in the final against Zambia. And if pre-tournament friendlies are anything to go by, he has truly translated his Roma form -- a phoenix-like rise from his days at the Emirates -- to the national side.

Wingers are key to the Ivory Coast's game plan, offering pace and movement that can overwhelm the opposition. Those duties coupled with collaborating with Drogba, Yaya Toure, Salomon Kalou and Wilfried Bony mean that Gervinho will act as both provider of and recipient to the creativity that infuses his team.

Getting on the score sheet with a rare header, he didn't quite reach top gear in the 2-1 victory over Japan, but he looked like he wasn't far from his best.

It is not an over-exaggeration to say that, on his day, he is unplayable. His loose dribbling style may be his worst enemy at times, but its total unpredictability also means that, when he is able keep his cool, he has every chance to skip past defenders and bend a match to his will.

Sam Crocker

Sam Crocker has been interested in African football since completing his undergraduate dissertation on the African Nations Cup. After becoming an editorial assistant at Sandals for Goalposts, he has since done writing for The Telegraph and Four Four Two, as well as more general football writing for Squawka. You can follow him on Twitter at @Sam_Crock