Key Battles That Will Shape Ivory Coast's World Cup Clash with Japan
With Colombia designated as the seeded team in Group C, and the favourites in the eyes of many, the Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece will likely be left scrapping for second place. This makes the opening series incredibly important for the Elephants and the Blue Samurai.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s men will be looking to build on their encouraging showing at the Confederations Cup last summer (and to prove that Japan will bring more to this World Cup than poor officiating) by beginning the competition with a win.
Among Ivorians there is finally the conviction that the group draw gives them a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. The Elephants have been eliminated in the opening stage in their first two appearances on the grandest world football stage of all, and they will look to make the last 16 this time around—it all needs to begin with victory over Japan.
This editorial presents the key battles and tactical issues that will shape the match on Saturday night in Recife.
Drogba vs. the Defence
One could argue that both sides' weakness is in the heart of defence. The Cote d’Ivoire will be considered later, but for Japan, a centre-back pairing of Maya Yoshida and Yasuyuki Konno looks fairly fragile and represents a point of "faiblesse" for Japan.
Yoshida may have improved greatly over the last 18 months at Southampton, but he is still not particularly effective in the air. Konno, similarly, doesn’t possess a particularly commanding physique.
It could be a day of great joy, therefore, for Didier Drogba.
The former Chelsea hero endured a frustrating World Cup four years ago when he suffered an injury ahead of the tournament and had to play with a cast. He will be highly motivated to lead the Elephants to glory this time around.
Drogba will relish playing against the Japanese back line. He may not have the pace of old, but he remains an excellent target man and knows how to put it about against tough centre-backs. Compared to the kind of challenges that Drogba grew used to facing in the Premier League, Yoshida and Konno may well represent a walk in the park.
Drogba’s natural replacement, Wilfried Bony, is a similarly menacing prospect, and quick, direct football using either man as a point of focus will likely cause problems for the Blue Samurai.
Disrupting the Metronome
Arguably the most important component of Japan’s team is their central midfield. In Alberto Zaccheroni’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo play crucial roles. Together, the pair control matches, with the former as a holding midfielder or deep-lying playmaker and the latter providing pinpoint passes for those ahead of him.
The pair are Japan’s metronome, their heartbeat, and are largely effective. In the hot conditions of Brazil, where a team will easily tire if forced to chase the ball, the pair could play a major role.
Stop them, however, and you can disrupt the Asian giants and throw them off their game plan.
Were Yaya Toure to be present, one would imagine that the Elephants could take the initiative and force the Blue Samurai onto the back foot. The Manchester City star is a major doubt for the opener, however, following end-of-season surgery, meaning the Ivorians might opt to play a more reactive role in the centre of the park.
Max Gradel, Toure’s likely replacement, doesn’t have Yaya’s quality, but he is an energetic performer and a talented dribbler. Should he play, he will need to use his energy and his endeavour to get between Endo and Hasebe and stop the two from dictating the tempo.
A wiser move, however, might be to bring Ismael Diomande into the midfield, concentrate attacks down the flank and push Serey Die forward to the pinnacle of the midfield triangle. This would allow the tenacious FC Basel man to execute the brief of disrupting the Japanese players.
Affect Hasebe and Endo, and you retain the initiative in the contest.
Protect the Defence
Intriguingly, the Elephants’ great weakness coincides with Japan’s greatest strength. Despite his poor form with Milan, Keisuke Honda remains a key creative influence, while Shinji Kagawa likes little more than picking up the ball ahead of the defence and running at the back line.
The thought of this will likely be keeping Sol Bamba and Kolo Toure awake. Bamba has always been a clumsy performer while Toure, past his best, is always capable of a mistake, particularly when faced with pace. The Liverpool stopper even panicked and gave away a penalty against the movement of the El Salvador forwards in a recent friendly.
While only one of the two will likely start (alongside Didier Zokora), either man represents a point of weakness for the Elephants. They may be able to contend with the crosses hurled into the box by the Japanese full-backs, but they will struggle against the movement of the attacking midfielders.
If Kagawa in particular is able to isolate the lumbering partner and run at him with pace, Sabri Lamouchi’s men may struggle.
One solution would be for Cheick Tiote to sit just ahead of the defence and take a discipline role, while another may involve the clever utilisation of another defender…
Getting the Best out of Serge Aurier
Toulouse full-back Serge Aurier is destined for great things.
The young Ivorian can do the lot; he can tackle, he can pass, he can drive forward, he can run all day and he is competent in the air.
He has played extensively as a centre-back in a back three for Le TFC over the last season and possesses the qualities to star in the middle for the national side.
Were Aurier to come into the centre of defence, he would add mobility and assurance to the heart of the back line. He, rather than Toure or Bamba, would be a better bet to protect Copa Barry’s goal from the likes of Kagawa and Honda.
This, however, would all but reduce Aurier’s attacking threat to set-pieces and would represent a major gamble considering Lamouchi has been reluctant to test the Toulouse man in the middle of defence during the friendlies.
In his right-back position with license to charge forward, the Arsenal target—as reported by Anne-Marie Bojan in the Mirror—can contribute defensively but can also be a major attacking weapon.
Crucially, Aurier has a superb engine and is one player less likely to be affected by any adverse conditions.
Winning It on the Flanks
From right-back, Aurier will be asked to combine well with Salomon Kalou, who will likely be ahead of him on the right-side of the forward line.
On the opposite flank will be Gervinho, who has scored two in the last four and has finally begun to add end product to his excellent dribbling skills and agility.
Kalou and, to a greater extent, Gervinho are coming off the back of excellent seasons and should be heading to Brazil in red-hot form.
The two hold the key to the Cote d’Ivoire’s offensive threat, particularly in the likely absence of Yaya Toure.
It may help that Japan’s full-backs are so attack-minded. Both Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida love to power forward and join the attack, before sending crosses into the box or baffling the full-backs with their movement.
They will, however, likely leave plenty of space behind them for Gervinho and Kalou to exploit. It will be a perfect opportunity for the pair to shine and either go for goal themselves or create chances for the front man.
Why is Aurier such a key man here?
Well, the full-back’s attacking inclinations as well as his engine mean that he will not think twice about joining in on the offensive. This may prove particularly bewildering for Nagatomo, who will likely not only have to contend with Kalou running at him, but Aurier overlapping as well.