The Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal played out a nervy 1-1 draw in Casablanca in the second leg of the African World Cup qualifying play-off.
Following a 3-1 triumph for the Elephants in the first leg, the Lions of Teranga had an awful lot to do—particularly considering they were facing one of the most celebrated collection of players in African history. Senegal impressed on the night, and largely dominated the contest, leading one-nil until the dying moments. They were left imagining, surely, what might have been had they not lost their defensive wits during the first contest between the two teams.
Ultimately, it is the Golden Generation of the Cote d’Ivoire who advance to next summer’s World Cup.
This current generation of Elephants are the greatest in the nation’s history and arguably one of Africa’s finest-ever collections of players. However, ever since emerging from the fabled ASEC academy, their international career together has been riddled with disappointment and failure.
Both of their World Cup appearances have ended in first-round elimination, and while apologists would argue that the Ivorians have been dealt two very tough draws, in both 2006 and 2010, on neither occasion did they do themselves justice. Similarly, in a continental context, they have become the champions of choking in the rarefied air of the Cup of Nations.
Qualification for the 2014 centrepiece affords the Golden Generation a final opportunity to leave a lasting legacy on the international stage. Drogba, the Toures, Zokora et al are all now the wrong side of 30, Brazil will surely be their final World Cup together, a fact that will be lost on no one.
Alain Giresse’s reasoning for not including Demba Ba in the Senegalese squad is that the Chelsea man is not playing regular first-team football at Stamford Bridge. The Lions of Teranga have a wealth of forward options, and in principle, employing this logic is a way for Giresse to whittle down his options.
However, with Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse horribly off form at St. James Park, Senegal were too often blunt up front. One fantastic chance fell to Cisse soon after half-time, but the former Freiburg forward failed to convert.
Bleacher Report’s Jerrad Peters wrote glibly, “Demba Ba would’ve scored there…”
He probably wasn’t wrong.
For Giresse to get the best out of this talented generation of Senegalese players, it is imperative that he finds a way to reintegrate the Chelsea forward into his squad—at least until Cisse rediscovers his scoring boots.
Didier Zokora left Tottenham in 2009, following three years at the club, with little ceremony. Harry Redknapp was keen to generate funds to purchase the likes of Kyle Walker and Peter Crouch, and the Ivorian was deemed surplus to requirements. At times during his stint at White Hart Lane, he had appeared too small of stature to impose himself in the Premier League, and despite his fine engine and endless running, he lacked the discipline to be a truly elite defensive midfielder.
As he proved against Senegal, however, he is an astute and measured reader of the game and an invaluable component of this Ivorian side.
Time and time again, particularly as the Lions of Teranga sought the goal that would prise open the tie, Zokora held firm. He thrives alongside a more physically imposing centre-back, a Kolo Toure or a Sol Bamba, where his excellent anticipation and fine reading of the game can often diffuse a situation before it has even ignited.
For periods, during the match, he also excelled at full-back, where he retains the pace and the energy to push forward and support those ahead of him.
Next summer, in Brazil, one of Africa’s finest players might finally earn the respect he deserves.
He may have been nominated for the BBC African Player of the Year award, and he may have demonstrated his set piece majesty with that fantastic free-kick against Norwich recently, but Yaya Toure is simply not ticking at the moment.
Don’t get me wrong, even at 70 to 80 percent he is still an imposing and competent central midfielder, but that extra majesty and verve that made him so fearsomely effective in Manchester City’s title-winning season is conspicuous in its absence.
Back in 2011-12, he was the Premier League’s—if not the world’s—outstanding central midfielder. Pushing up behind the forwards, he proved himself to be a big-game player, a creative force and a menacing goal-scorer. Few other players, if any, contributed as much to Manchester City’s Premier League victory.
These days, however, Yaya is looking like a shadow of his former self. The Cote d’Ivoire’s midfield (of which he is the heart) was anonymous against Senegal, as the Lions of Teranga took control of the clash and rarely lost the initiative in the middle of the park.
Sabri Lamouchi will be praying that the younger Toure rediscovers his form ahead of next summer’s centrepiece.
Senegal may have missed out on an invitation to the international high table next summer, but Senegal fans will not be totally downhearted as they look ahead toward the future.
Alain Giresse, a much-travelled coach, knows his way around West African football, and despite the criticism that comes his way, I am confident that he can get the best out of the Senegalese national pool.
As well as the 11 who started the game Saturday night, and performed so manfully against their illustrious opponents, Giresse had Henri Saivet the Bordeaux forward, primed to make an impact as a substitute. He also had Mohamed Diame, the side’s captain, bizarrely excluded Saturday, available to him. Finally, the young Anderlecht defender Cheikhou Kouyate was also on the bench—a result, perhaps, of his poor performance in the first leg.
If Giresse can make the most of these talents, can reintegrate Demba Ba and can find a place for the likes of M’Baye Niang, Moustapha Bayal Sall and Lamine Gassama, he could help the Lions of Teranga approach the status they held back in 2002.
Anyone who witnessed this second leg against the Elephants will know they are not that far away.
They may have secured qualification to Brazil, but it was a less-than-convincing performance by the Elephants. Drogba and his troops were played off the park for long periods of the game and were clinging on in the final stages.
Following Moussa Sow’s goal for Senegal, I posited that the Ivorians looked like a team still bearing the emotional scars of failures past. On so many occasions, great things have been expected of this collection of players, only for them to crumble and fall apart when the pressure has been heaped upon them.
As the Elephants ceded the initiative to the Lions of Teranga you could almost hear the voices inside Gervinho’s head reminding him of that horrible penalty miss at the 2012 Cup of Nations and reminding him of his worthlessness. For all his good recent form with Roma, the former Arsenal man was anonymous on the night.
This trauma residue may affect the Ivorians next summer, although we may find that in the international arena, rather than the continental sphere, they are able to thrive with less expectation upon them. If they cannot manage the mental side of the game, then I fear I may be anticipating another Elephant meltdown next summer.