Ivory Coast begin their campaign in the early hours of tomorrow morning, knowing that this might be the last chance for their greatest generation to make an impression on the international stage.
Sabri Lamouchi’s team take on Japan in Recife, at Brazil’s eastern-most tip. Group C is one of the more winnable quartets, with favourites Colombia restricted by the loss of lead striker Radamel Falcao. Ivory Coast have not progressed from the group stage in either of their two World Cups – 2006 and 2010 – and are desperate to do so this year.
Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba are two unambiguous greats of the game who have never quite translated their brilliance at club level into their national side. Aside from their performance at World Cups, Ivory Coast have not won the African Cup of Nations since 1992. The Drogba generation could only make them runners-up twice, in 2006 and 2012.
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
Drogba is 36 now and his club career, at Galatasaray, is winding down. Yaya Toure is 31, and trying to shake off a thigh injury sustained at the end of last season. He will not be the same player at Russia 2018. Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora are both 33.
Lamouchi has insisted that he is not in awe of that generation, boasting last week of how he had benched Drogba. “‘There is no favouritism here,” Lamouchi said. ‘Before me, nobody had dared put Didier or Kolo (Toure) on the bench. I did it against Tunisia and we won 3-0. It was not to assert my power, but just to show that at certain moments, status is not enough. I am under no pressure to pick certain names.”
There are talented youngsters available, not least Toulouse’s explosive right-back Serge Aurier and Swansea City striker Wilfried Bony. But Drogba and Toure, champions of the highest class, will get one more shot.