At the Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday, Herve Renard and his young Ivory Coast side learned that revenge is a dish best served cold.
The Elephants were trounced by Cameroon, 4-1, in the qualifiers in September, but they had the last laugh as they eliminated the Indomitable Lions from the 2015 Afcon following a superb Max Gradel goal.
Since that unhappy defeat in Yaounde, new coach Renard has overseen a steady improvement of an Ivory Coast side that once again failed to escape the group stage at the World Cup. There were some disappointing results during qualification, and the side haven’t always shone at the Afcon, but in beating Cameroon, they may well have given themselves a platform to enjoy a memorable tournament.
The relevance of some of the team’s more experienced campaigners cannot be denied—Kolo, rather than Yaya, Toure has returned to the side and added experience and composure to the heart of defence.
However, it is perhaps some of the new faces, the younger players and unheralded stars who are primarily responsible for the Ivorians’ success.
Max Gradel is a fine example of a player who is truly coming into his own in Equatorial Guinea.
The former Leeds United man has long been a fringe player for the national side and often struggled to edge into the starting XI ahead of the likes of Gervinho and Salomon Kalou.
He featured in the Elephants’ pre-World Cup friendlies, for example, but he was only trusted in one match by then-coach Sabri Lamouchi.
He has been a key man under Renard, however, starting five of the six qualifiers and scoring goals against Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the beginning of the Afcon, he wasn’t a starter, but he came on against Mali in the Elephants’ second match to score a vital equaliser.
Against Cameroon, with Gervinho suspended and Kalou on the bench, Gradel joined Wilfried Bony and Seydou Doumbia in the attacking three.
The Saint-Etienne winger was the game’s outstanding individual. He tested and teased Fabrice Ondoa with a number of fine corners and free-kicks and was ultimately the match-winner, firing home after profiting from an error from stand-in right-back Jerome Guihoata.
With Gervinho’s suspension over, it remains to be seen how Renard will configure his team for the quarter-final against Algeria. Gradel is the key reason his side are still alive and kicking in the tournament, and he must surely start against the Desert Foxes.
Renard took a moment in the press conference to praise Junior Tallo, the young SC Bastia striker he has introduced to the team, while young defenders Wilfried Kanon and Eric Bertrand Bailly also deserve great credit for having stepped up to become defensive starters. Serge Aurier, another defender, also shone against Cameroon.
Aurier established himself as Africa’s outstanding full-back during the 2013-14 season and shone at the World Cup, but since moving to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, he has lost a little of his verve. He hasn’t always been a starter in Ligue 1, and his performances with the national side have suffered as a result.
However, he appeared to be back to his dazzling best against Cameroon, tearing down the right flank, terrorising opposition defenders and almost setting up a goal for Bony in the early stages.
After the match, Renard admitted that he had had to challenge Aurier to improve his performance.
Sometimes, you just have to say the truth, and even when a player is playing for Paris Saint-Germain, you have to tell him. There is video, you have to tell the player to be efficient for the team, because Serge sometimes wants to attack.
Today, he understood very well. He’s intelligent, important for the group.
Giving Gradel the confidence and the opportunity to be one of the Ivorians’ key men has ultimately seen the Ivory Coast through to the last eight, but Renard’s masterstroke might actually be rejuvenating Aurier and waking that particular sleeping talent.
“When you put a fox behind elephants, they run quicker,” chuckled Renard—whose surname means fox in French—after the match.
And if the Afcon-winning coach can get the best out of Gervinho, Bony and Yaya Toure against Algeria, Ivory Coast will be clear favourites to take the Afcon crown.
All quotes in this piece were gathered by Ed Dove in Malabo