Ivory Coast Must Not Get Carried Away with Japan Victory
The World Cup delivered another fascinating tie as the Ivory Coast and Japan met in Recife.
The Blue Samurai opened the scoring, as Keisuke Honda profited from some slack defending to fire home a rocket from close range.
Sabri Lamouchi tweaked things in the second half, however, and the Ivorians gradually turned the match back their way. Goals from Wilfried Bony and Gervinho, during an intense, sharp and glorious period of play, put the Elephants in the driving seat.
They never looked back as Japan, stunned by their losing the initiative, wilted.
For the first time in their history, the West African side have begun a World Cup with a win. They now look well-placed to claim a spot in the second round.
Despite the positives, however, which are explored in this piece, there are some causes for caution following their 2-1 victory.
Lamouchi's Finest Hour
It’s fair to say that former French international Sabri Lamouchi hasn’t enjoyed the best debut to his management career with the Ivory Coast.
He was an odd choice to take the reins, due to his inexperience and the absence of any previous connection to the nation, and has struggled to convince to date.
He took a side that hadn’t conceded a single goal during the 2012 Cup of Nations and delivered a stodgy insipid affair at the tournament one year later.
The defence, in particular, has declined, and Lamouchi has done little to resolve the concerns at centre-back. Similarly, he has arguably mismanaged his offensive resources, and it was a major surprise when Seydou Doumbia, who has enjoyed such fine form in Russia, was overlooked for the final squad of 23.
Against Japan, however, Lamouchi earned his keep.
The manager’s initial approach invited pressure onto the team, but he was proactive at half-time, changing things around and pushing the dangerous Serge Aurier and Arthur Boka into offensive positions.
The former, in particular, relished the attacking brief.
While Lamouchi could arguably be criticised for ignoring Didier Drogba in the first place, he had the foresight to change things around and didn’t leave it too late to rearrange his options, as Volker Finke had done for Cameroon earlier in the competition.
When he did introduce Drogba, he didn’t take the easy, predictable option and make a straight swap for Bony, instead, he took off Serey Die and played the two frontmen together.
While the former Chelsea striker didn’t directly influence the goals, his very introduction lifted the side and helped turn the tide in the Elephants’ favour. This didn’t come at the expense of Bony (or his confidence), and, indeed, the Swansea forward managed to score the equaliser with a glancing header.
Aurier Lives Up to the Hype
The watching world tuned into Aurier on Saturday evening, as the Arsenal target made his World Cup debut.
During the first half, the highly rated Toulouse defender was part of a defensive unit that struggled to cope with Japan’s clever movement. He lost 100 percent of his aerial duels during the match and also committed two fouls.
However, as the match wore on, Aurier grew into the contest.
He completed 31 of his 45 passes, with the majority being positive transitions, and also sought to drive forward down the right-hand side.
Afforded a more attacking brief in the second half, it was he who set up both of the Elephants’ goals with almost identical crosses. He also created another fine chance with a third cross from the right.
One could almost sense the millions being added onto Aurier’s potential transfer fee as the minutes passed. It would be surprising if Arsenal were the only club to make an enquiry for the defender this summer.
Expect Aurier to enjoy even more influence with the Elephants over the coming weeks.
Stats via FFT Stats Zone
The Succession Narrative Continues
The “Succession Narrative” of the Ivory Coast is one of African football’s most fascinating subplots. Drogba, who recently passed 100 caps with the national side, has been the key figure in the Golden Generation and the spearhead of this superb collection of Ivorian internationals.
He has enjoyed great success in Europe and has cemented his place as one of Africa’s all-time greats.
He has long threatened, however, to cast a long shadow over the Elephants’ forward line.
How can Lamouchi begin to replace a player who has meant so much to the national side for 12 years?
Fortunately, the nation is blessed with a crop of talented forwards who, to varying degrees, have the qualities to step into Drogba’s shoes. Lacina Traore, Seydou Doumbia and Bony have just needed more opportunity (and a little more fortune) to assert themselves within the national team setup.
Bony certainly received the opportunity on Sunday as, in a surprise move, he was named as a starter ahead of Drogba.
It was a surprising move both because of the latter’s status as well as the fact that he has started four of the last six for the national side, scoring three goals in the process.
While Bony received the nod from the manager, and succeeded in scoring, his goal belied a fairly unimpressive performance. He snatched at shots, failed to work the defenders and found himself isolated from his teammates.
Don’t be surprised to see Drogba starting the Elephants’ next match against Colombia.
The wait for a successor to the superstar hitman and the wait for the conclusion of the "Succession Narrative" looks to continue a little longer.
...as Do Defensive Concerns
While the barnstorming attacking display of the Ivory Coast’s forward line has indicated that the Elephants possess the ability to score against anyone, their defence continues to be a concern.
Once again they failed to keep a clean sheet, and there were indifferent performances from Sol Bamba, Didier Zokora and Copa Barry in particular.
Bamba was strong in the air, but he continues to look sluggish and uneasy when faced with pace and movement. Greece are unlikely to trouble him, but one suspects that the Trabzonspor man might be having sleepless nights as he awaits Colombia.
Barry looked uncomfortable during set pieces, while Zokora carries the ball out of defence well but lacks presence and, again, pace.
A potentially nasty injury to Boka, who was replaced by Constant Djakpa in the second half, throws further concern over the Elephants’ defence.
Their goals should see them out of the group, but unless they can firm up at the back, they won’t get much further than that.
The Last 16 Awaits...
Finally, the most important thing to take from this match, is that the Ivory Coast have put themselves in an excellent position to escape from the group.
In 2006 and 2010, optimism was dampened by tough group draws, and the Elephants struggled to navigate the major challenges they faced.
The propitious draw convinced many that the Elephants could, finally, at the third time of asking, make the knockout stages.
When Japan took the lead through Honda, that sinking feeling returned.
Class and quality told, however, and the big names came to the fore to put the Elephants back on track.
From here, the last 16 looks within touching distance. Colombia were impressive against Greece and represent ominous opponents for the Elephants, but the West Africans should have the firepower to overcome the Europeans.
The turnaround against Japan will have given the Ivorians the confidence and the points to push on.
Underachievers no more?
Stats via FFT Stats Zone