13 June 2014

Africa: Golden Elephants Take Final Shot at World Cup

Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix
Ivorian right back Serge Aurier laid on both goals for his side in their match with Japan, perhaps signalling the emergence of a star among the new generation of Elephants players.

Cote d'Ivoire's Golden Generation take a final shot at the World Cup and begin their campaign against plucky Asian side Japan in the early hours of Sunday morning for African viewers.

OVERVIEW

Cote d'Ivoire have been much lauded as a standard for other African sides to reach, but the sad reality is that they have achieved nothing that their potential suggests.

They have failed to win the Africa Cup of Nations, despite going into the last five tournaments arguably as favourites, and on their previous two World Cup appearances they have exited in the first round.

The team has achieved the bare minimum and as the years roll by, the chances of them writing a glorious history for The Elephants diminish.

They now have a final shot at World Cup glory, and perhaps one more go at the Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco in six months' time.

They begin their Brazilian campaign against Japan in Recife, late Saturday night local time but in the early hours of Sunday morning for African viewers.

The same old problems continue to dog the side. It is not a matter of finding penetration to exploit the weaknesses of opponents, that they have aplenty, but it is defensive frailties that have let them down in the past.

And in Japan they will come up against a side who play with pace and excellent technical ability, a team who will keep the ball on the ground and try to play through the rickety Elephants defence.

Physically the African side will have the advantage in spades, their worry, perhaps, is not to become overly physical.

The big question for coach Sabri Lamouchi is whether he will have star man and African Footballer of the year Yaya Toure available. The midfielder, one of the world's best, has been struggling with a hamstring injury collected towards the end of the last English Premiership season when he helped Manchester City to the title.

Lamouchi says they will leave it as late as possible to make a decision on Toure, such is his importance to the team. It is unlikely he will be risked if not fit though, with matches against Greece and Colombia to come.

Japan have won their last five games, all friendlies, including an excellent 3-2 win in Belgium last November.

They do have a habit of conceding needless goals. Within that winning run the scores were Belgium (3-2), New Zealand (4-2) and Zambia (4-3), which suggests a flaky defence but a frontline that has the ability to bail them out.

KEY PLAYERS

Didier Zokora (Cote d'Ivoire) - Zokora will make his 120th international appearance and it is that kind of experience that should hold The Elephants in good stead this tournament. They are unlikely to have trouble scoring goals, but it is at the back where they have had problems in the past. Zokora could feature either as a centre-back or a defensive midfielder shielding the back four, but either way he is set to play a pivotal role.

Keisuke Honda (Japan) - Considered by most to be Japan's best player, the team often look to the AC Milan attacking midfielder in times of crisis during games and he has a history of delivering. The 27-year-old will channel much of their attacking play and if the Ivoirians can neutralize him they will go a long way to winning the game.

WHAT THEY SAY

Sabri Lamouchi (Cote d'Ivoire coach) - "Our defensive problems are not just the problems of our defenders. The more players we will have involved in the defensive tasks, the easier it will be for our defenders. We are fully aware of the problems we have encountered. We were faced with injuries and some of our defenders lack playing time, but I count a lot on the experience of those players in such a competition. It is clear that we will have to be more compact. Japan are dynamic, pacey and move quickly forward, so we will need to remain very close from each other."

Alberto Zaccheroni (Japan coach) - "I want us to be really well prepared mentally for this match. We need to make sure the players are not too nervous when they step out onto the field, but we cannot be too relaxed either. We have a squad with an average age of about 27. There is a good balance and I am sure we will start this game with the right approach."

MATCH FACTS Date: Sunday, June 15 Kick-off: 01h00 (GMT) Venue: Arena Pernambuco, Recife Referee: Enrique Osses (Chile)

COTE D'IVOIRE HEAD-TO-HEAD VS JAPAN P3 W1 D0 L2 GF2 GA2

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