x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

African Cup of Nations: Ivory Coast pack plenty of punch

Coach Sabri Lamouchi has little reason to panic even if Didier Drogba or Gervinho do not fire against Tunisia on Saturday.

Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast striker, looked out of touch during their win against Togo.
Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast striker, looked out of touch during their win against Togo.

RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA // When mention is made of Ivory Coast's "golden generation", all of Africa, and much of the world game, know exactly who the phrase identifies.

Through the spine of the teams who have appeared in two of the last four Africa Cup of Nations finals, and in a semi-final and a quarter-final in between the pair of heartbreaking final defeats via penalty shoot-out, are constants: They are the high-profile Toure brothers, Yaya and Kolo, and captain Didier Drogba.

But in the background at this Nations Cup is also a goal-rich generation. On paper, Ivory Coast's head coach, former France international Sabri Lamouchi, has genuinely tough decisions to make when he names his starting XI, especially up front, where his preferred striking pair have struggled lately for form while others are thriving.

Going into today's meeting with Tunisia, where a win for the Ivorians could confirm their progress to the next round, Lamouchi will be relieved to see evidence of growing match-fitness from Drogba, who played with little influence in the 2-1 win over Togo that kicked off Les Elephants's campaign.

Drogba, 34 and now employed in the Chinese Super League, played 73 minutes against the Togolese, his first competitive action since early November.

His partner in attack was Gervinho, the Arsenal striker whose starting opportunities with his club have dwindled markedly since last September. Gervinho, scorer of the late, winning goal and creator of Yaya Toure's first-half strike, was at least lively and effective against Togo.

He needed to be. "There is a lot competition for places among the strikers," says Souleymane Bamba, the Ivorian centre-half, who in practice gets a tough workout from the half-dozen gifted forwards in Lamouchi's squad, each with their distinct styles, from the muscular approach of Drogba to the trickery of Gervinho.

"You see in training there is a healthy tension between them," he said.

If recent club form hardly recommends Drogba and Gervinho, it glorifies Wilfried Bony, who replaced Drogba against Togo. For Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivisie, Bony has a fetching 16 goals in 14 league appearances this season.

Meanwhile, Arouna Kone, back in the Ivorian squad after a long absence, has made an impressive start to his English Premier League career. He joined Wigan Athletic last August, has scored six goals for them and set up another five.

There are further options. The tall 22-year-old Lacina Traore is enjoying success at the ambitious and wealthy Russian club, Anzhi Makhachkala. Traore has seven goals in his last 11 league outings.

Meanwhile, there is the very respectable international goalscoring record of the winger Salomon Kalou, a teammate of Drogba's for six years at Chelsea, where they won a European Cup together last May. Kalou, now with Lille, has 20 goals from his 53 Ivorian caps.

Drogba, Gervinho and Lamouchi all acknowledged the sluggishness of much of the performance against Togo – "our worst since I took over," said Lamouchi, in charge since last May – but there will not be wholesale changes as a result. The array of hungry goal scorers must bide their time a little longer on the bench.

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