x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

African Cup of Nations: Ivory Coast limp to victory over Togo

Gervinho scores the winner for Les Elephants, but their performance against their considerably weaker Group D opponents was below par. Ian Hawkey reports from Rustenburg.

Gervinho, who scored the winner for Ivory Coast, was one of the few bright spots for his team against Togo. Mike Hutchings / Reuters
Gervinho, who scored the winner for Ivory Coast, was one of the few bright spots for his team against Togo. Mike Hutchings / Reuters

RUSTENBURG, South Africa // Ivory Coast, favourites to win the 29th African Cup of Nations (Afcon), are three points to the good after their opening match.

Safer to say it was the outcome they needed, rather than clearly deserved against Togo, considered the weakest opposition in a strong Group D. The Ivorians laboured hard for it.

Perhaps the best that can be said for a sluggish performance from several of Les Elephants, losing finalists twice in the last four Afcons, is that their captain, Didier Drogba can only become more effective than he was today and that their edginess defending set-pieces is now no secret, so it will have to be the subject of concentrated homework.

Drogba, looking short of match fitness after a long break since the domestic season in China, where he plays, finished, was utterly eclipsed here by his striking partner Gervinho, who, meeting a deep Yaya Toure free-kick on the volley, struck the winning goal three minutes from full-time.

Gervinho had been the brightest of the men in orange throughout. The Arsenal player has not had the happiest of domestic seasons, increasingly marginal at his Premier League club.

He identified Ivory Coast's right flank as a productive territory from which to probe Togo and from there he set up the early lead. With a spurt of acceleration, Gervinho gained himself space to cut back a low cross, and Yaya Toure, arriving from midfield thumped a clean powerful drive past Kossi Agassa.

Later, a similar manoeuvre, following a Gervinho shimmy and another lower centre, had the younger Toure clattering a drive against the Togo post so hard the upright may still have been humming when, up at the other end, Togo equalised.

A Serge Gakpe corner whipped in front of the thicket of players at the near post, among them Togo's Dare Nibombe. Jonathon Ayite, unpoliced behind them, met the ball on the volley, emphatically. Ayite, energetic and eager to shoot, would have felt he deserved some reward for his efforts.

Togo certainly did. They had been given belief in the vulnerability of Ivory Coast from the first minute, when Kolo Toure, under no particular pressure and evidently dozing, invited Emmanuel Adebayor, Togo's captain, to pick up possession, with Boubacar Barry, the Ivory Coast goalkeeper, the only remaining obstacle between him and goal. Adebayor seemed so surprised by the gift, he too let himself down, his second touch allowing Barry to parry sufficiently that Adebayor was forced wide.

The Ivorians collected their thoughts after that let-off, although under a hot afternoon sun, there was imprecision in much of their passing. Drogba had the look of a man who felt he might have had better service. By the time he was withdrawn, 16 minutes from full-time, he had contributed little.

The Togo coach, Didier Six, felt Togo merited at least a point and angrily cut short his post-match news conference with a snipe at the referee, Alioum Neant, who had disallowed a Nibombe 'goal' from a corner in the second-half because the kick had been taken before Neant had authorised it.

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