AFCON 2013: Group D Focus – Drogba gamble pays off as Ivory Coast ease into quarter-finals

After this column had earlier called for Didier Drogba to be given a strike partner to help him after the Ivory Coast’s lethargic 2-1 victory over Togo in their opening Group D fixture, the Elephants’ boss Sabri Lamouchi sprung arguably one of the biggest surprises so far by dropping perhaps African football’s biggest icon for the first time in his international career, favouring a strike duo of Lacina Traore and Salomon Kalou against Tunisia.

While it would be churlish to suggest that Drogba’s absence was a reason for his side’s vastly improved performance, and indeed many have been far too quick to suggest that the soon-to-be Galatasaray player has become a hindrance rather than an aid in his side’s quest for glory, it should be remembered that Drogba came off the bench on 67 minutes and was thus on the field for the final two goals of the Ivory Coast’s 3-0 victory.

Undoubtedly, Drogba continues to be a major part of this team and if the Ivory Coast, who have now qualified for the quarter-finals already ahead of their final Group D fixture against Algeria, are to finally win the Cup of Nations that the talent in their squad merits, then the 34-year-old will surely be the team’s attacking spearhead in the final in Soccer City.

However, what the victory and, more importantly, performance, in the absence of Drogba does offer to the rest of the Ivorian squad is belief that they are capable of winning matches and producing the goods even without their talisman. In recent Africa Cup of Nations, there has been a sense that if Drogba is not quite at his best, then the Ivory Coast, for all their attacking talent, simply fail to turn up to the party.

There is a tendency to always look for Drogba and as fantastic as a player he was and is, a little variety is often what is needed to make that final breakthrough. Thus for the likes of Gervinho, who scored his second goal of the tournament against Tunisia, Traore, Kalou, Didier Ya Konan and Yaya Toure, their performances in the absence of Drogba will have given provided self-belief for the rest of the tournament.

Drogba and company now face their final group match against an already eliminated Algeria but the real contest on Group D’s final matchday comes in Nelspruit where Togo face off with Tunisia in a straight shoot-out to decide who else goes through.

Togo and particularly Emmanuel Adebayor were impressive as they comfortably saw off Algeria in their last match and considering the rather flimsy manner of Tunisia’s defeat to the Ivory Coast, coupled with Togo’s good showing against the group leaders in their opening match, the Sparrow Hawks will be confident of getting a draw at least, which would be enough to send through at the Tunisians’ expense.

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