If only two words could be used to describe the Ivory Coast's preliminary 30-man roster that was announced by manager Sven-Goran Eriksson yesterday, they would have to be as expected. Of the players initially selected to represent the Ivory Coast in the upcoming World Cup, there are no shockers.
We knew that Didier Drogba would highlight the list and that all of the Ivorians playing in the English Premier League and other top European leagues would make the cut. We knew that Eriksson would favor a defensive lineup and coach to his team's strengths. We also knew that there would be many returning players from the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
That being said, yesterday's announcement gives us a very good idea about what to expect from the Elephants in South Africa.
Goalkeepers: Boubacar Barry (Sporting Lokeren OV), Vincent Angban (ASEC Abidjan)
Defenders: Arthur Boka (Stuttgart FC), Guy Demel (Hamburg SV), Emmanuel Eboué (Arsenal FC), Kolo Touré (Manchester City FC), Abdoulaye Meité (West Bromwich Albion FC)
Midfielders: Didier Zokora (Sevilla FC), Romaric (Sevilla FC), Yaya Touré (FC Barcelona), Abdel-Kader Keita (Galatasaray SK), Emmanuel Koné (FC International Curtea Arges)
Forwards: Didier Drogba (Chelsea FC), Salomon Kalou (Chelsea FC), Aruna Dindane (Portsmouth FC), Bakari Koné (Olympique Marseille), Gervinho (Lille OSC)
Sporting one of the fastest, toughest, and deepest back lines in this year's field, the Ivory Coast will look to its defenders to provide the team with a solid foundation and stability. The Ivorian back line has the potential to be one of the strongest in South Africa.
With multiple defenders playing for top-tier clubs, the experience earned playing at the best clubs in the world should translate to the international level and give the Ivory Coast experience and discipline in pressure-packed World Cup matches.
The leaders of the Ivorian defense are Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué, who are regulars for two of the top clubs in England. Both are tough, speedy backs who will take the challenge of marking the opposition's best forwards. This will be critical for the Elephants as they face off against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Fabiano, Robinho, and Kaka in Group G.
As I mentioned in my preview of the Ivory Coast , one of the Ivory Coast's biggest strengths is the aggressive mentality of its defenders. Led by Touré, Eboué, and Arthur Boka, the Ivorian backs are adept at harassing and frustrating opposing forwards and midfielders.
The Elephants look to intimidate their opponents on the pitch and that intimidation starts in the back, where their defenders will tackle, push, foul and do whatever else they can to gain an advantage.
This aggressive mentality is shared by the Ivorian midfield. Eriksson decided to go with a very defensive, tough-minded midfield, which was expected, considering that a defensive midfield was used in the 2010 African Cup of Nations and other qualifiers for South Africa.
The Elephants have two of the most proven defensive midfielders out there in Yaya Touré and Didier Zokora, both of whom have emerged as two of the best defensive midfielders in not only La Liga, but in Europe. They are very similar in that both are able to drop back and help out the back line if needed or go forward to the attacking third of the pitch and provide service for their forwards if necessary.
While the Ivory Coast's "bread and butter", if you will, is its defensive midfield, the inclusion of Romaric in the roster could be the most important of Sven-Goran Eriksson's roster additions.
Romaric, who was not even on the roster for the Cup of Nations in January due to disciplinary reasons (under former manager Vahid Halilhodžić), is the most skilled midfielder at Eriksson's disposal.
On a team in desperate need of an attacking midfielder who can provide consistent service to the forwards, Romaric is extremely valuable because he fits that mold. Accustomed to providing Luis Fabiano with timely through balls and effective angles in Spain, he should be able to display his unique passing ability behind Drogba and Kalou as well.
Even though the Ivory Coast lacks another creative midfielder or two to help Romaric behind the forwards, the fact that the Elephants have a special amount of talent in front of goal should minimize that weakness.
With Drogba and Kalou, who play well side-by-side for both club and country, leading the way, the Ivorian attack has the potential to be the best in the World Cup, even better than the Luis Fabiano-Robinho and Fernando Torres-David Villa partnerships for Brazil and Spain, respectively.
Drogba, the Premier League Golden Boot winner for the 2009-10 campaign, is not only the Ivory Coast's best player, but also the team's captain and emotional leader. His Ivorian teammates view him as a calming presence and will look to him for confidence and resolve in pressure situations, not to mention goals. As he goes, his country goes.
However, the depth of the Ivorian attack should not be underestimated, with Bakari Koné, a regular for the Ivory Coast since 2005, and Aruna Dindane, who will lead his Portsmouth side against Chelsea in the upcoming FA Cup final on May 15, competing for that last attacking spot in Eriksson's 4-3-2-1 formation. Both should find it easy playing with the regulars, Drogba and Kalou.
However, despite the Ivory Coast bringing a talent-laden roster, from its sound back line to its star-studded attack, to South Africa, there is one glaring weakness that should not be overlooked. This one weakness is the goalkeeper position.
The first-string goalkeeper, Boubacar Barry, will keep his starting spot for the World Cup after gaining some much-needed experience in the Cup of Nations, but, in terms of big-game experience, he is far from reliable.
Playing for Sporting Lokeren OV against Belgian competition is not the same as playing against Portugal and Brazil in the first two matches of the World Cup, the biggest stage for international soccer. Barry's experience and ability between the posts will be in question constantly, in part because of the high expectations for the Ivory Coast this summer.
For Boubacar Barry, however, the encouraging thing is that there is an immense amount of talent in front of him, especially in the back line. He will be able to rely on the likes of Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué to bail him out of sticky situations in front of his net.
Oftentimes, defenders give their goalkeeper confidence and reassurance, and that is what the Ivory Coast is hoping for come June.
What This All Means
The announcement of this early roster only reinforces my belief that the Ivory Coast has enough talent, experience, and versatility to be one of the best teams in the World Cup. The Elephants should advance out of the group stage and make noise in the later rounds of the tournament.
Head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson not only has enough weapons in his arsenal to lead his Ivory Coast team deep into the tourney, but an opportunity to make a name for himself as one of the premier coaches at the international level.
The capable players on his roster should help put any questions about Eriksson's ability to win, or focus on his job, to rest. He has all the pieces he could have asked for to make us forget about his days at the head of England and Mexico in years past.