Admittedly, El Salvador didn’t represent the sternest of tests for the Cote d’Ivoire when the two teams met on Wednesday evening. The Central Americans offered precious little in attack and, after scoring two first-half goals, the game became little more than a training exercise for the Ivorians, who enjoyed long spells of possession and toyed around with some varying offensive options.
All in all, the outing, a 2-1 victory, did much to enforce the view that the Elephants could be set for their first-ever appearance in the knockout rounds this summer.
In their two previous World Cup appearances, the Elephants didn’t manage to escape the group, a combination of terrifically difficult draws and, certainly in the case of 2006, defensive naivety.
The fabled Golden Generation have, similarly, struggled to claim the honours to accompany their status and reputations within the continental context. African Cup of Nations tournaments have come and gone, with the Ivorians becoming the masters of choking when their continental rivals crank up the pressure.
Heading into Brazil, there is great reason for optimism. Three of their four key players—Yaya Toure, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho—are all in their prime and coming off the back of stunning seasons in three of Europe’s major leagues.
Few midfielders in the world are capable of doing what Toure can do; Kalou has become a much more rounded and mature character since swapping Chelsea for LOSC Lille in Ligue 1; while Gervinho has been a man reborn, playing out of his skin and clearly enjoying life in AS Roma after leaving Arsenal behind.
The fourth key player, Didier Drogba, may be 36, but he remains a force of nature, a highly experienced and effective performer who will be incredibly motivated to lead his side into the last 16 and beyond this summer.
Elsewhere, Wilfried Bony, likely to feature from the bench, has had a fantastic debut season in English football, scoring 16 goals in 34 Premier League games for Swansea City. Serge Aurier, similarly, is enjoying a steep climb to fame in France with Toulouse and looks destined for a major transfer following the World Cup.
Things in other areas of the pitch aren’t looking so rosy.
The Elephants defence didn’t come under much, if any, scrutiny against El Salvador, largely because of the deficiencies of its opponents.
That’s probably for the best, as, when placed under pressure, the Ivorian defence has proved itself to be particularly brittle.
Heading into the 2014 World Cup, it is the back line—and specifically the heart of the defence—that represents the side’s greatest weakness and the major headache for coach Sabri Lamouchi.
The Elephants have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last eight games. They have conceded 14 goals, averaging over two conceded per game, over the last year of matches.
During this period, their opponents haven’t been the most testing, either. Tanzania—those famed East African heavyweights—may have conceded four against the Elephants, but they themselves scored two past the Ivorians’ first-choice back five.
Against Mexico they conceded four, again with the preferred personnel on the pitch, while they conceded two apiece against Belgium and Bosnia in March and May, respectively.
Despite their poor performances, coach Sabri Lamouchi has seemed hesitant to play around with his first-choice defence.
Which central defensive partnership should start for the Elephants in Brazil?
Copa Barry, the goalkeeper who’s always good for a comical blunder or a momentary lapse, has long been considered the Golden Generation’s weak link. However, with few other stoppers of note set to replace him, the keeper has only missed three matches (two friendlies and the dead rubber against Algeria at the Cup of Nations) since the beginning of 2013.
At left-back, the Ivorians have several fine options. Arthur Boka is likely to start in Brazil, but Lamouchi has given game time to both Constant Djakpa (who also travels) and Siaka Tiene in recent times. Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro has also been assessed in this position with, if anything, instability rather than player deficiency being the Elephants’ greatest enemy at left-back.
In the centre, however, Kolo Toure, Sol Bamba and Didier Zokora are an uncomfortable trio to occupy such pivotal positions and protect the jittery Barry.
The first two players are fairly similar, particularly since Toure has begun to lose his pace. The pair offer presence, power and experience but are both capable of lapses of concentration, are vulnerable on the turn and aren’t wholly natural with the ball at their feet.
Toure has deteriorated greatly since his halcyon days at Arsenal, as anyone who has witnessed some of his hapless performances in a Liverpool shirt this season can testify.
Since the opening game of the 2013 Cup of Nations, Toure and Bamba have only started two games together, including Wednesday night’s clash against El Salvador.
Lamouchi has preferred to use Zokora, converted from defensive midfield, to offer something different in the heart of the defence. The former Tottenham Hotspur man is an expert reader of the game and is comfortable on the ball. What he lacks in height and strength, he compensates for in intuitive positioning, anticipation and mobility.
Playing Zokora alongside one of the other two—typically Bamba—is a solution, but it is not the answer. The latter’s limitations and lack of pace cannot simply be solved by the presence of the former Spurs man alongside him.
Bamba’s sluggishness discourages him and Zokora from pushing up, for risk of leaving space behind them, but in remaining deep, the defence opens up space ahead of itself, running the risk of speedy forwards running right at it.
The description must be the stuff of Bamba’s nightmares.
A solution proposed before the tournament was to move Aurier inside from right-back. While this would have removed some of the youngster’s attacking threat down the flank, it would have ensured the centre of defence, an altogether more important part of the pitch, was solidified. Aurier may be young, but he has the mobility, the power and the intelligence to compensate for the deficiencies of others.
This plan could have worked perfectly had Olympique Marseille’s Brice Dja Djedje made the final cut.
The versatile former Paris Saint-Germain man is another rising Ligue 1 star and could have thrived at right-back alongside Aurier. In his absence, it may be that Akpa-Akpro could take the right-back berth, although, with only one cap to his name, this experiment may have to wait.
Lamouchi can relax a little knowing that Radamel Falcao will not be present in Group B to torture his back line, but even if the Monaco man will not be in Brazil, the opening pool features one or two players who could cause problems for Bamba and co.
The sleepless nights might be set to continue a little longer for Sabri Lamouchi.