A second-half goal by Salomon Kalou earned Ivory Coast a 1-0 victory over Nigeria yesterday in a clash of heavyweights in one of the most-anticipated games of the African Nations Cup.
The game was a repeat of the 2006 Cup semi-final and was settled when the Chelsea striker netted on 66 minutes, shooting home from 15 yards to give the Ivory Coast a dream start against the run of play in Group B at the Essipon stadium.
Picking up the ball on the left wing, Kalou swerved right, then left, to leave three players standing before sending Nigerian goalkeeper Austin Ejide the wrong way.
Nigeria's best chance in the first half fell to Obafemi Martins. But the Newcastle striker shot straight at the goalkeeper. But both teams struggled throughout to find any sort of fluency in the scorching heat, with the temperature reaching 35C.
Ivory Coast hit back through a 30-yard effort from Arsenal's Kolo Toure before Martins forced a save from Boubacar Barry. The noisy Nigerian crowd, roused by an army of trumpeters, were then lifted to their feet when Taye Taiwo crashed a 30-yard free kick against the Ivorians' crossbar.
Ominously for Nigeria, it was Ivory Coast who were looking the more settled after 20 minutes, showing greater composure in the final third and retaining possession impressively.
Nigerian threatened occasionally, including when Taiwo got beyond the defence, but his cross failed to find Everton's Yakubu Aiyegbeni, who was well positioned in the centre of the area. The first half ended goalless with both defences coping well with any attacking threat. For Nigeria it was Joseph Yobo who stood out, while the Ivory Coast were well marshalled by the commanding Toure.
Ivory Coast's coach Gerard Gili added to his front line by replacing midfielder Steve Gohouri with forward Abdelkader Keita at half-time.
Fresh from the break, Nigeria began to dictate the play and created some good moves, with Kanu dropping short to cleverly link the play, but Yakubu wasted two clear chances within the first five minutes of the second half.
But a robust challenge ended Kanu's influence on proceedings as the Portsmouth player was carried off and replaced by Onyekachi Okonkwo.
The sparring continued until a flash of individual brilliance from the lively Kalou broke the deadlock.
The Nigerians were left reeling and Kador went close to adding a clinching second, blasting wide from 15 yards, before Kalou failed to connect properly with a well-placed ball inside the area.
Berti Vogts, Nigeria's coach, substituted Portsmouth's John Utaka for Osaze Odemwingie of Lokomotiv Moscow to try and add some fresh legs to his weary-looking side. And Vogts tried one final change, replacing Martins with Lazio's Ayodele Makinwa, but his team remained flat and unable to respond.
Aruna Dindane went close to doubling Ivory Coast's lead three minutes later, but the striker lost his composure and missed the target after outpacing the Nigeria defence.
Nigeria: Ejide; Yobo, Shittu, Apam, Taiwo; Obi Mikel, Olofinjana, Kanu (Okonkwo 55), Utaka (Odemwingie 74), Aiyegbeni, Martins (Makinwa 79)
Ivory Coast: Barry; Eboué, Touré, Meite, Boka; Toure, Zokora, Gohouri (Keita 46); Drogba (Kone 84), Kalou, Dindane
Referee: Mohamed Benouza (Algeria).
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