x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba has respect for Zambia ahead of final

Ivory Coast coach Francois Zahoui admits his side were under pressure during their semi-final victory over Mali in African Cup of Nations.

Salomon Kalou, left, the Ivory Coast player, attempts to score against Mali late on Wednesday.
Salomon Kalou, left, the Ivory Coast player, attempts to score against Mali late on Wednesday.

LIBREVILLE, Gabon // Ivory Coast will play Zambia in the final of the African Cup of Nations after Gervinho's goal on the stroke of half time ensured the title favourites edged out Mali 1-0 on Wednesday night.

The Arsenal forward capitalised on a defensive error at Stade de l'Amitie to race half the length of the pitch and shoot past goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite, sending the Ivorians to their second final in six years and giving them another chance at a first African title in two decades.

Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure both hit the post as Ivory Coast dominated a stubborn Mali for most of the semi-final but could not give themselves some breathing space.

The Ivorians still reached the deciding game with five straight wins and without conceding a single goal at the tournament. They are now in touching distance of the Cup of Nations triumph that would befit their star-studded squad, which has lost in the final, semi-finals, and quarter-finals at the past three tournaments.

"We suffered a bit of nerves," said Francois Zahoui, the Ivory Coast coach. "There were signs of stress and I showed signs of stress, but it worked out.

"We came here with a lot of expectation and pressure. With the failures we've had in the past, we understand we haven't won it yet."

Zambia advanced to Sunday's decider after surprising Ghana 1-0 in the first semi-final at Estadio de Bata. The southern African team is now probably every neutral's choice to win the tournament on their return to Libreville 19 years after a tragic plane crash in the Gabonese capital robbed the country of one of its best-ever teams.

"There will be a lot of emotions on both sides," Zahoui said. "Zambia is a young team and we know they are a team of emotion. We respect them a lot."

In Libreville, Gervinho led the celebrations at full time as Ivory Coast's relieved players ran across to dance and applaud in front of their orange-clad fans, who had been outnumbered by Mali's supporters in a stadium that was maybe half full.

The West African country's only previous Cup of Nations title came in 1992, when they beat Ghana in a marathon penalty shoot-out.

"We are going to stay concentrated because we want to have a party on Sunday," captain Drogba said. "We'll stay concentrated and above all respect the Zambian team."

At Stade de l'Amitie, which will stage the final, Gervinho finally made Ivory Coast's first-half dominance count in the 45th minute when he flicked the ball past defender Ousmane Berthe on the halfway line, sprinted down the left wing unchallenged, cut in on goal and sent a right-footed shot into the far corner.

Mali's defensive slip, as Berthe rushed up on the Arsenal forward and was beaten and with Cedric Kante giving him too much space, caused a furious reaction from coach Alain Giresse.

Mali's coach slapped his hand against the team dugout in frustration as Ivorian players congratulated Gervinho going down the tunnel at half time.

In the second half, the Malians finally ran out of gas after showing great resilience to lift themselves from a group-stage defeat to Ghana and then come from behind against co-hosts Gabon to win a penalty shoot-out in the quarters.

"We can be proud of the team," Giresse said. "We almost succeeded; we weren't far from succeeding."

Drogba gave Mali an early warning when he glanced a downward header off the back of his head that came off the post in the sixth minute.

Toure slammed a shot off the other post soon after from close range after surging from midfield and receiving a pass from Salomon Kalou on the right wing.

Gervinho sent a header over the crossbar in the 18th, as Africa's top-ranked team went close with nearly every attack.

Behind to Gervinho's opportunist strike, and with Ivory Coast in control, Mali rallied for Mustapha Yatabare to shoot just over in the 73rd with goalkeeper Boubacar Barry stretching.

But it was the best of few Mali openings in the second 45 as Ivory Coast tightened their grip and closed out the game.

Drogba broke clear again down the right wing in the 77th and held off Kante to hit an angled shot that Diakite half-blocked, and Mali scrambled the ball away from in front of goal.

The Malians defended bravely but could not threaten at the other end.