Ivory Coast go into their final game of the World Cup knowing they face a near impossible task to reach the last 16. Sven-Goran Eriksson and his side require the unlikeliest set of results after disappointingly taking just one point from their opening two matches in Group G, a lifeless attack-shy 0-0 against Portugal followed up by Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Brazil in Johannesburg. With Brazil topping the table on six points and already assured of progression to the knockout stages and Portugal’s 7-0 romp over North Korea on Monday, Ivory Coast look certain to fall to an early exit from the supposed ‘Group of Death.’
Fingers may be pointed at the decisions of Head Coach Eriksson due to his defensive approach to their opening fixtures. England fans were at times left frustrated by the Swede’s defence-minded tactics during his reign at the helm of the national side and he has shown little change in his mind-set in South Africa. Despite naming six forwards in his 23-man squad and employing a 4-3-3 in both matches, the Elephants showed little attacking intention against Portugal in the opening match, preferring to absorb any pressure from their opponents and despite seeming the better side, refused at any point to commit for a much-needed victory. If instead of entering this match with a must-not-lose attitude as was seemingly present, they had given a more attacking determined display and won the game, it would certainly have set them up for their clash with Brazil with a lot more hope. Instead, Eriksson surprisingly decided to drop Gervinho, man-of-the-match against Portugal and the one player who offered a rare glimmer of class throughout the dull stalemate, recalling Didier Drogba who played with a cast on his broken arm and struggled up front alone against the strength of Lucio and Juan. While Gervinho sat and watched from the bench, wide-men Salomon Kalou and Aruna Dindane offer little assistance to Drogba and failed to impact on the Brazilian defence at all until it was too late. Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva broke up most Ivorian ventures forward, protecting the defence whilst offering support going forward as the Brazilians tore into Erikssons’ men in the second half.
Despite their predicament and the highly unlikely set of results that will be required to progress, Ivory Coast defender Arthur Boka said his side will continue to fight until the end: “If we win this match maybe a miracle can happen – only God knows. We will try to win our last match and if we exit, exit with our heads held high. We must believe we can still do it.”
There maybe hope for the Elephants if they arrive to face the flimsy North Korean side that folded so dramatically against Portugal, conceding six second-half goals as Cristiano Ronaldo inspired his side to pole position for the runners-ups spot in Group G. Also if key man Drogba, scorer of Ivory Coast’s sole goal in the tournament, can find his shooting boots against a weak Korean defence and rack up some early goals the Ivories could run the Portuguese close. However, Portugal will go into their clash with Brazil full of confidence, in the knowledge that avoiding defeat will leave the Ivory Coast hopeless. Even if beaten by the already qualified Brazilians, the Ivory Coast will need to go goal crazy in Nelspruit against the lowest ranked side in the tournament in order for Portugal to be knocked out. And if the frustrating resilient defending that the Koreans met Brazil with in their 2-1 defeat in Johannesburg, the Ivories’ South African adventure looks set to end at the same stage as their first World Cup appearance in Germany four years ago, where they finished third in the group stage.
Then they were eliminated before their final match, after losing to Argentina and the Netherlands 2-1, before rounding off their campaign coming back from 2-0 down to beat Serbia and Montengro 3-2 to achieve their first ever World Cup win. The minimum expected from Friday’s match with North Korea will be a second World Cup win, a performance to match their potential and a morale boost for the continent that supported them throughout the tournament.
For Eriksson, a man with a cloudy recent history with short stints as director of football at Notts County on the back of a disastrous spell as Mexico boss, where he goes after the tournament remains unsure. He only took over the vacant Ivory Coast post in March, leaving him just two months to follow his players and determine his squad and tactics, yet he is only contracted until the end of the World Cup. Whether or not he is offered a contract extension remains to be seen, but the fans will not have been impressed by the side’s displays so far. The 62-year-old has also been linked to the available Liverpool job. Replacing Rafael Benitez at Anfield may prove attractive to Eriksson, a chance to add to his already impressive CV in club management.