Elephants on the charge

2010-01-09 00:00

PROVIDING an insight into the strength of the Ivory Coast, the favourites to win the 2010 African Cup of Nations that begins in Angola tomorrow, is that stalwart Chelsea striker Didier Drogba was pipped this week as the country’s Footballer of the Year by Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure.

This sends a message to the rest of Africa on the talent they will be up against when the Elephants go on the charge in the next three weeks, in their quest to add to their lone African championship won in 1992.

It also indicates to World Cup hosts South Africa, who have not qualified for Angola, how far Bafana Bafana have fallen behind the rest of Africa since winning the Nations Cup in 1996.

Everton’s Steven Pienaar and MacBeth Sibaya were South Africa’s leading candidates for their top footballer award for 2009. While both are no mean players, neither can quite compete with two of the world’s leading football stars in Toure and Drogba.

The Nations Cup kicks off tomorrow in Luanda with the match between competitive hosts Angola, quarter-finalists at Ghana 2008, and a Mali team spearheaded by Sevilla and former Tottenham Hotspur striker Frederic Kanoute.

With eight goals, Kanoute, the 2007 African Footballer of the Year, was behind only Cameroon sharpshooter Samuel Eto’o and Burkina Faso’s Moumouni Dagano in the qualifying scoring charts.

Kanoute leads a Mali team that exited in the first round in Ghana, but includes players such as Barcelona’s Seylou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid and Juventus’s Mohamed Lamine Sissoko.

Coached by legendary Nigerian defender Steven Keshi, Mali will join hosts Angola as potential dark horses, though both must get past Algeria, World Cup qualifiers ahead of Egypt, in a tough Group A.

Ivory Coast have taken the strongest team on paper to the last two Nations Cups and twice fallen foul of eventual winners Egypt in epic contests, on penalties in a goalless final in Cairo in 2006, then 4-1 in the semi-finals in Ghana.

The Elephants are grouped with Burkina Faso, fellow West African tournament favourites Ghana, and 2006 World Cup qualifiers Togo in Group B, and open their campaign against Burkina Faso in Cabinda on Monday.

Apart from Drogba and Toure, the Ivorians boast strong players in each position, including defenders Kolo Toure of Manchester City, Arthur Boka of Stuttgart and Valenciennes’s Siaka Tiene, Sevilla midfielder Didier Zokora and forwards Aruna Dindane (Portsmouth), Arouna Kone (Sevilla) and Salomon Kalou (Chelsea).

Egypt — five-time champions, including in the last two Nations Cups — will again line up as the strongest opposition to the Ivorians’ challenge. Much will depend on how the Pha­raohs respond to their devastating failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Fears have been that coach Hassan Shehata’s tactics, which revolve around a 3-5-2 formation and line-up that has changed little since winning the Nations Cup on home soil in 2006, have become predictable and that the Pharoahs are an aging side.

Their solidity is built around goalkeeper Essam el Hadary, defenders Wael Gomaa and Hani Said, and wing-backs Ahmed Fathi and Sayed Moawad. Add midfielders Hosni Abd Rabou, Ahmed Hassan and Mohamed Shawky, and the lethal forward pair of Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Zidan, and the Egyptians are guaranteed to progress far in Angola.

Cameroon, the 2008 runners-up, are always dangerous and much will depend on the form of Eto’o and Arsenal central midfielder Alex Song. Nigeria are a pale shadow of the powerhouse team of the 1990s,  but, with dangerous forwards Jon Mikel Obi, Peter Odemwingie and Yakubu Aiyegbeni, will always be challengers.

Ghana are likely to miss injured Chelsea star Michael Essien in their opener against Togo in Cabinda on Monday.

Coach Milovan Rajevac controversially left star forwards Sulley Muntari and Steven Appiah out of the Black Stars’ squad.

The hosts, Tunisia, Mozambique and Zambia are all capable of creating upsets, but, in the World Cup year, this appears to be a Nations Cup that could be dominated by the continent’s heavyweights.

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