Two outsider teams, two star players on contrasting form, two sides of Manchester. It may seem obvious to distil Ivory Coast’s clash with Japan down to Yaya Toure and Shinji Kagawa but then their effect is just as clear.
The Ivorian midfielder proved himself one of the best players in the world this season; Kagawa remains a sparkling presence for his country, if not for his club.
Domestic issues further frame this contest. Toure required surgery at the end of Manchester City’s Premier League season, and by far the biggest question on the eve of the Japanese game regarded his fitness.
Former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Didier Zokora calmed nerves, as did some of the City star’s movement in training.
“I think Yaya Toure is ready,” Zokora said. “He’s the key player for Ivory Coast.”
The starkness of those words is almost understating it. After almost a decade in which a gifted generation of Ivorian players failed to fully maximise their talent, Toure is now the only star in anything like his prime.
Didier Drogba, after all, is 36 but still in the squad. Ivory Coast have even deeper problems than age, however, not least the question marks over callow manager Sabri Lamouchi.
A more stable Japan haven’t suffered these kinds of fluctuations. They are a technical and tight side, best typified by Kagawa.
Ivory Coast: Group C team profile
Ivory Coast: Group C team profile
1/5 How they qualified
Ivory Coast limped into the World Cup finals in Brazil with a 4-2 aggregate win over Senegal in the African World Cup play-offs. After dominating Group C with an unbeaten record in the preliminary qualifying rounds – winning four and drawing two – the Elephants were handed a two-legged showdown against Alain Giresse’s Senegal and claimed a 3-1 victory in their home stadium. Senegal took a one-goal lead in the second leg, leaving Ivory Coast’s qualification in the balance as the hosts went in search of a 2-0 victory which would secure them a World Cup berth on away goals. But Salomon Kalou spared Ivory Coast further anxiety when he levelled the scores on the night to ensure Ivory Coast’s passage to the World Cup.
Sabri Lamouchi took charge of the Ivory Coast in 2012 to mark his first job in management. His controversial appointment was met with disapproval in some quarters after former boss François Zahoui was sensationally dismissed from the role. Lamouchi’s inexperience only heightened the discontent that arose in the wake of Ivory Coast’s managerial shake-up, while calls for continuity at the top fell on deaf ears. The incoming former France international enjoyed a rich playing career that included stints at Monaco, Marseille and Inter Milan. But his reputation was not enhanced by the Elephants performance at the Africa Cup of Nations early in 2013, which he himself branded a ‘failure’.
3/5 Star player
It was during the Ivory Coast’s inaugural FIFA World Cup appearance in 2006 when Yaya Toure first made his potential apparent. Despite Ivory Coast’s failure to clamber out of the group stages, Toure impressed and secured a switch from Olympiakos to Monaco in August 2006, a move which triggered his march from strength to strength. The box-to-box midfielder later enjoyed a spell at Barcelona before he settled at Manchester City – gathering plenty of silverware in the process. Toure has three times been named African Player of the Year and is lauded for his versatility. The 30 –year-old complements a potent attacking threat with industrious defensive displays and an impressive ability to transition between both.
4/5 Emerging talent
Right-back Serge Aurier is reportedly a transfer target for Arsene Wenger as he sets about locating a strong replacement for Bacary Sagna. Aurier showed great potential from a young age and made his Ligue 1 debut aged just 16 when playing for Lens. The 20-year-old moved to Toulouse in 2012 - despite interest from Premier League clubs such as Manchester City and Sunderland - and immediately made a place in the starting 11 his own. Aurier made his international debut in June 2013 and has represented the Ivory Coast seven times, including both legs against Senegal in the decisive two-legged play-off that confirmed Ivory Coast’s World Cup berth.
5/5 Formation (4-3-3)
Barry; Aurier, Bamba Souleymane, K Toure, Boka; Tiote, Serey Die, Y Toure; Gervinho, Drogba, Kalou
His recent form has almost been the inverse of Toure’s. The playmaker has barely made an impact for Manchester United, but proved hugely important for Japan in qualifying, hitting four goals.
He touched on the difference on the eve of the tournament, and his comments banish many of the concerns over his ability to handle the stage at Old Trafford.
“I personally think it is a completely different kind of pressure," Kagawa said.
“When playing for Japan, it means that I carry my country on my shoulders and I feel a different kind of pressure as I am expected to do more when playing for Japan.”
The hope for his team is that the whole world finally sees the real Kagawa, and not just those in Germany and Japan.