3 February 2013

Nigeria: Crunch-Time for Drogba in Nigeria - Côte d'Ivoire Blockbuster

Nigeria versus Côte d'Ivoire in Rustenburg is the blockbuster of the quarter-finals. Nigeria are looking to reestablish themselves as one of the premier sides on the continent while Côte d'Ivoire are essentially a golden generation desperately seeking a title.

Dismantled by Egypt in 2006 and 2008, thwarted by Algeria in 2010 and spooked by Zambia in 2012, if Côte d'Ivoire don't claim the crown in South Africa this year, their federation will have to help the players deal with prolonged grief disorder.

Worryingly, there are no guarantees in this most forbidding of environments.

It's all the more galling for the Ivorian faithful because their team lays the groundwork with such battle-hardened precision. Last year in Gabon, they wore down the opposition. This year, they've improved as the tournament has progressed.

Victory over Togo in the first Group D match was a squeaky affair. Coach Sabri Lamouchi oiled the machine by removing the apparent impediment.

The talisman, skipper, leading scorer, demi-god that is Didier Drogba started on the bench for the second game against Tunisia. The Ivorians were already 2-0 up before he made his entrance. He helped to create the final goal in the 3-0 rout.

With qualification secured as Group D winners, the 34-year-old led the line in the essentially ceremonial game against Algeria .

The question is will Lamouchi leave the country's most idolised player out of the starting line up for the Nigeria showdown?

It's the call of a career. It may well call time on a career.

"Didier has made clear progress, he's working hard," says Lamouchi. "Like the rest of the group, Didier is essential for the rest of the competition. I won't change anything in the way I pick my team. I'll try to put the best one forward."

Time dictates that the day had to come for Drogba's demise but for the moment to descend during a competition so dear to his heart, still seems an unlikely narrative. Drogba has been the axiom of the Ivorian team. In his pomp at Stamford Bridge between 2004 and 2012 it was assumed he would guide the Elephants to their first title since 1992.

Quite how an Ivorian crown would be weaved into his myth without him leading from the front would be intriguing. But the final is still a week and potentially a penalty shoot-out away.

Nigeria must be negotiated before such personal fables are written. And for a country that used to produce individual talents with scary regularity, the antithesis now appears to have traction.

"This team may not have the experience of the great Nigerian sides of the past," says skipper Joseph Yobo. "On paper Côte d'Ivoire are favourites, so people might class us as the underdogs, but we know the importance of this game and are very focused. It's not about star names, it's not about individuals, it is about going through to the next stage."

True. But stars often ease that passage with their flashes of brilliance and Drogba has been the alpha. It will be instructive, though, if Ivorian redemption comes in the fall.

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