Ivory Coast Camp Focus – Not quite the stampede the Elephants had in mind

Quality and shots were few and far between, as Ivory Coast and Portugal opened their World Cup campaigns producing a drab goalless draw in Port Elizabeth. A match that promised so much failed to deliver, as just two shots hit the target in 90 disappointing minutes in a game that neither side seemed determined to, or deserved to win. Both sides clearly set out not to lose this opening Group G fixture and seemingly settled for a point apiece, in the light of facing five-time World Cup winners Brazil in the group stage, as well as dangerous North Korea drawn together in the so-dubbed ‘Group of Death.’

In the absence of star man Didier Drogba, unable to start the match despite clearance from FIFA to play with a protective cast on his broken arm, Ivory Coast Head Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson employed a rigid 4-3-3 formation with the intent to counter attack with pace and width, yet remain robust and difficult to break down when the Portuguese retained possession by dropping men behind the ball. This tactic worked for the Elephants as they easily dealt with what little threat Portugal offered, but their own inability to produce any quality of note going forward lead to a forgettable first half.

Portugal went closest to breaking the deadlock before the break as Cristiano Ronaldo produced a rare piece of magic in an otherwise lacklustre opening 45 minutes. Receiving the ball 35 yards from goal, the former Manchester United man left Yaya Toure in his wake with a classy back-heel before unleashing an unstoppable 30-yard drive that thundered against Boubacar Barry’s right hand post. The world renowned no.7 was paid particularly special attention by the Ivorians and was on the receiving end of some hard hitting challenges, in an attempt to thwart his notorious ability on the ball.

The game had to improve after half-time, in truth it couldn’t have gotten much worse. It took nearly an hour but finally the game opened up as each side enjoyed spells of attacking purpose, without creating clear cut goalscoring opportunities. Deco’s flighted cross for Liedson gave Barry a rare touch in the Ivory Coast goal, as the Portuguese striker headed tamely into the goalkeepers arms. At the other end, man-of-the-match Gervinho, leading the line in Drogba’s absence, impressed at times with jinking trickery and lively movement causing problems for the Portuguese defence, yet he too failed to hit the target with a disappointing header over.

It had to come and with 25 minutes remaining Drogba was thrown into the fray by Eriksson, replacing Chelsea club-mate Salomon Kalou, who was relatively anonymous throughout on the left of the three-man attack for the Elephants. The crowd lifted as the face of African football joined the pitch, vuvuzelas rang out as expectant supporters rose as one to greet their hero with a arousing reception. Unfortunately his impact was stifled however as his team-mates supply forward often failed, numerous passes over hit and missing targets. Just one half-chance fell Drogba’s way in stoppage time as he was put through by fellow substitute Kader Keita but stretching to shoot under pressure from Paulo Ferreira succeeded only in cutting the ball back across goal.

Bemusingly, the game ended with Ivory Coast choosing to hold the ball in the corner from a set-piece rather than attacking the Portuguese box in hope of stealing an undeserved winner, a tactic that rather reflected the negative approach and disappointing performance from both sides. After the match, Eriksson reflected on his first competitive match in charge of Ivory Coast; “Not completely happy but it was a good game tactically for both teams,” he said. “No-one wants to lose this game. We had some good chances and half chances but okay, it’s a point”.

With Brazil up next on June 20 in Johannesburg, a marked improvement will be needed by Ivory Coast to compete with the well fancied South Americans, who top Group G on the back of a 2-1 victory over Korea DPR. Should Drogba return to the starting line-up or not, a less tentative approach will be needed by the Elephants against Dunga’s men or else they could pay the price for their resistance to really go for the win against Portugal. Defeat against Brazil and failure to better Portugal’s result against North Korea, could see Ivory Coast exit the tournament if Brazil top the group as expected and they slip behind Carlos Quieroz’s men. In their home continent, in suitable conditions and with the will of a nation behind them, anything over than advancement to the knockout stages would be seen as failure in the eyes of their adoring fans.

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