Ivory Coast head to Johannesburg for Sunday’s crucial Group G clash with Brazil, knowing a dramatic improvement in their attitude and play will be required to have any hope of avoiding an early plane home from South Africa. After a disappointing display against Portugal in their uninspiring 0-0 draw on Tuesday, Sven-Goran Eriksson will know a lot more will be expected and needed from his side in order to beat the South American group leaders, who dealt with the tricky North Koreans 2-1 after watching their qualification rivals play out a tentative opening match.
Eriksson indicated his pleasure at his side’s defensive strength and resilience in their first competitive match under his guidance. The former England and Mexico Head Coach only took over the vacant post in charge of Ivory Coast in March and had just two weeks of training and two friendly matches in order to determine his final squad to take to the World Cup. Throw in confusion and worry of nearly losing star striker Didier Drogba with his broken arm scare, and you can see why the 62-year-old was happy to avoid defeat against Carlos Quieroz’ Portugal.
“I was very happy with our discipline and organisation, we were organised for 90 minutes, in the past it wasn’t like that,” the Swede said after the game. “There weren’t many occasions to score. You saw two teams who didn’t want to lose. I thought if one team had won it should have been us,” he added.
Just two shots hit the target from both sides in a highly negative game in Port Elizabeth, one that neither deserved or seemingly sought to win. Defences were on top for in a dour affair, lacking quality, inspiration and at times even a sense of desire to win. Both sides adopted an apparent ‘must-not-lose’ attitude to the game, as though playing for the runners-up spot behind Brazil would be their goal. In the wake of the shot-shy encounter, both Ivory Coast and Portugal must show more of the attacking intention we have seen from their talented squads in previous matches in order to arrive in the knockout stages.
After North Korea’s plucky display against Brazil on Tuesday evening proved they will perhaps not be the whipping boys many thought they could be, the ‘Group of Death’ really would appear to be living up to its billing. For after their defensive, frustrating approach to their game, Ivory Coast and Portugal will both now need to go out in an attempt to outscore each other in their remaining games, as it would appear likely whoever gets the better result against Brazil and can hope to beat North Korea by the most convincing margin would reach the last 16 in the runners-up spot.
With the runners-up in Group G to face the winners of Group H, it will be interesting to see how Spain’s shock defeat to Switzerland affects the outcome of any expected line-ups in the first knockout round. Their 1-0 loss to the Swiss means that the early tournament favourites are not necessarily guaranteed to top their group as was so roundly expected. Meaning, results dependant of course, that the runners-up in Group G could face either Switzerland or Chile in the last 16, a decidedly less tough appearing tie than facing the Euro 2008 holders would seem.
A sign of encouragement for Ivory Coast would be Drogba’s capacity to come off the bench for the last 25 minutes against Portugal. Although his impact was subdued by a lack of quality supply, absence of attacking intent and the games’ poor nature, the Ivorian centre forward could be pushing for a recall to the starting line-up on Sunday. After receiving clearance by FIFA to play with a protective cast on his broken arm, Drogba was determined to be unfit to take to the field for kick-off in Tuesday’s match, but replaced his Chelsea club-mate Salomon Kalou after 65 minutes.
He had little of the ball as the game drifted to an inevitable stalemate, yet the reaction of the supporters to him entering play was quite simply an indication of how highly idolised Drogba is throughout his home African continent. The fans hollered their support and vuvuzelas blared as he appeared on the side-line, his every touch greeted with a sense of hope and expectation. If his appearance can inspire his team-mates as much as it inspired a nation on Sunday, and the superstar striker can produce a performance to match the way he ended his 37-goal season for Chelsea, anything could be possible for the Ivory Coast against Brazil.