The final day of Group Stage play at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations was supposed to have been loaded with possibilities.
When the bracket was drawn the four sides that comprised it—Algeria, Ivory Coast, Togo and Tunisia—combined to create what had every appearance of a Group of Death, but by the second matchday, two of the pre-tournament favourites had already sealed their fate: Ivory Coast into the quarterfinals; Algeria out of the competition.
The same two sides will go head-to-head in Rustenburg on Wednesday, but instead of being the showdown for first place in Group D that many had envisioned, it will serve mainly as a training exercise for the Ivorians who have already won the section and will face the Group C runner-up in the quarterfinals on Sunday.
Still, Elephants manager Sabri Lamouchi will want to make sure bad habits don’t set in ahead of the knockout round. Ivory Coast has been tipped for continental glory in each of the last four Cups of Nations, and if they come short in this installment they may have a considerable wait before contending again.
The likes of Boubacar Barry, Didier Zokora, the Touré brothers and Didier Drogba aren’t getting any younger, and after two matches so far in South Africa (they beat Togo 2-1 and Tunisia 3-0) this Ivory Coast side has the look of something special. Lamouchi won’t want to derail that momentum with a poor showing at Royal Bafokeng Stadium.
On the other side of the ball, Algeria has yet to score at this tournament and comes into Wednesday’s match without a point from two outings. They lost 1-0 to Tunisia on a Youssef Msakni stunner in the first minute of second-half stoppage time and were beaten 2-0 by Togo on Saturday.
As midfielder Adlene Gueidioura told the BBC after the defeat, Algeria had never played all that poorly over the two matches; it was merely a lack of finish that had cost them.
“The only thing you can reproach us for his not scoring,” he said. “I think against Togo we played well again but destiny just was not with us. It’s very harsh for us because we controlled the game again; we had the majority of possession; we had a lot of chances to score and at the end we lost 2-0.”
The sense of destiny that has proven so elusive to Algeria looks to have manifested itself in Ivory Coast. In an interview with Goal.com Paris Saint-Germain full-back Siaka Tiéné admitted he and his teammates had been playing at an exceptionally high level in South Africa but added that they could get even better.
“We pushed Tunisia really hard,” he said. We won the game convincingly, but I still think that we haven’t performed to the best of our ability in this tournament. There is more to come.”
Something Algeria will surely be wary of as they make their preparations for Wednesday.
Following are a handful of battles that will be among the keys to victory in Rustenburg.
Djamel Mesbah vs. Gervinho: Mesbah, the AC Milan left-back, adds an element of width to the Algeria attack but is often found to be wanting in his own defensive third. If Gervinho (should he start) can get in behind him it could spell all sorts of trouble for the desert foxes.
Yaya Touré vs. Medhi Lacen & Foued Kadir: Cheick Tioté’s presence in the centre of the Ivory Coast midfield has allowed Yaya to venture forward more often than he might have otherwise, and he has been one of the players of the tournament to this point largely because of that freedom. On Wednesday it will fall to Getafe’s Lacen and Marseille’s Kadir to neutralize the Yaya threat as best they can.
Algeria vs. despondency: One of the favourites upon arrival in South Africa, Algeria’s tournament has gone pear-shaped and their inability to find the back of the net caused manager Vahid Halilhodzic to admit he was “ashamed” of the Desert Foxes’ performance following the Togo loss. Spirits are low in the Algeria camp, and they could be on the receiving end of a hiding if they concede early.
Ivory Coast vs. Sunday: By the time this match kicks off Ivory Coast will know who they’ll be facing in the quarterfinals on Sunday. They already know the match will be played in this city, so it’ll be hard for them to keep their focus against a team that has nothing to play for. They’d do well to remember the last time they faced Algeria at the Cup of Nations—in 2010 when they lost 3-2 in Angola.