Is it finally time for Ivory Coast’s ‘golden generation’ to deliver a first African Cup of Nations title for 21 years?
South Africa 2013 got off to an underwhelming start on Saturday after a pair of stalemates involving the hosts, Cape Verde, Morocco and Angola but expect the tournament to have well and truly heated up by the time last year’s beaten finalists enter the fray on Tuesday.
Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure and Abdul Razak will be looking to put an end to one of international football’s most remarkable underachiever stories when they kick off their African Cup of Nations campaign against Togo on Tuesday.
It’s the fifth consecutive tournament that Ivory Coast have been backed as favourites to triumph but this is arguably the most difficult to predict international tournament in world football, so Yaya and co will take nothing for granted.
It’s a squad packed with leaders – not only the Toure brothers but also the talismanic striker and captain Didier Drogba who harbours more regrets than most, having missed the penalty in last year’s final against Zambia that would have surely landed the trophy.
After crashing out of 2010’s AFCON in freewheeling style with a 3-2 quarter-final defeat to Algeria, a mood of pragmatism gripped the Ivorians in 2012 as they tightened up the defence and cruised into the final with relative ease.
Pitted against the minnows of Zambia, the engraver could have been forgiven for getting a headstart and relaxing to watch the Ivorian powerhouses ease to victory – especially when Drogba was presented with the opportunity to score a 70th minute penalty.
But the former Chelsea man missed the target and the Elephant’s safety-first approached backfired as they lost on penalties – leaving that Côte d'Ivoire clock to tick ever louder… 21 years.
Expect the handbrake to be off this time around.
A newcomer to the international scene, Razak made a late charge into the squad, with each of his three caps coming in international friendlies.
The 20-year old is likely to be understudy to Yaya and former Tottenham midfielder Didier Zakora in the heart of midfield but won plaudits for his accomplished performance in the recent 4-2 friendly win over Egypt.
At the age of 31, it’d be foolish to assume that this will be Kolo’s final AFCON but the experienced defender won’t want to wait until Morocco 2015 to get his hands on the trophy that has eluded him up to now.
Toure is in his best form for years after forcing his way back into Roberto Mancini’s reckoning before departing on international duty and will be hungry to avenge his missed penalty in the final shootout last year.
Kolo will win his 104th international cap in the opening match against Togo if selected.
There has been speculation that Toure Jr might call time on his international career if the Elephants finally exorcize their AFCON demons in 2013.
City’s man of steel scored a memorable free-kick against Equatorial Guinea in the last edition of the tournament but was left as a heartbroken bystander after being substituted 88 minutes into their final defeat last Februrary.
Alongside Drogba and his brother, Yaya will again set the emotional tone for the Ivorians in South Africa - let’s just hope there will only be tears of joy this time around.
Dangerous opposition awaits Lamouchi’s side in Group D which has inevitably been dubbed “the Group of Death.”
Vuvuzelas at the ready, Ivory Coast start against Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo in their opening encounter in Rustenburg (the scene of England’s golden generation’s demise in World Cup 2010).
It doesn’t get any easier for the Elephants as they face a talented Tunisia team and a dangerous assignment against dark horses Algeria (brilliantly nicknamed: the Desert Foxes), who are coached by former Ivory Coast manager, Vahid Halilhodzic
It may be a game with a hint of added spice as Halilhodzic has been quoted as saying that his old charges lack the mentality to win a major competition.
Looking further down the line, Ivory Coast will also be wary of meeting reinvigorated Ghana and Nigeria sides too early in the competition.
The Coach: Sabri Lamouchi
This is former Inter, Parma and Monaco midfielder Lamouchi’s first job in management, so the pressure is on to prove he has the experience and the leadership skills to deal with the tag of favourites.
Sabri only took the reins in May 2012 but has won praise in the Ivorian media for the unfussy manner that his team dispatched Senegal in to qualify for the tournament.
Ivory Coast v Togo – Tuesday 22 January 3pm
Ivory Coast v Tunisia – Saturday 26 January 3pm
Ivory Coast v Algeria – Wednesday 30 January 5pm
Goalkeepers: Copa Barry, Daniel Yeboah, Badra Sangaré.
Defenders: Kolo Touré, Souleyman Bamba, Emmanuel Eboué, Siaka Tiéné, Arthur Boka, Ismaël Traoré, Igor Lolo.
Midfielders: Didier Zokora, Cheik Tioté, Yaya Touré, Max Gradel, Romaric N’Dri, Abdul Razak, Didier Ya Konan.
Forwards: Salomon Kalou, Gervinho Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony, Lacina Traoré, Arouna Koné.
We’ll bring you all of the news and views on Ivory Coast’s AFCON campaign here on mcfc.co.uk over the next few weeks.