Monday, February 2, 2015 1:46 pm
by Andy SCOTT/AFP
After a clinical performance in beating the pre-tournament favourites on Sunday, an improving Ivory Coast now have a first Africa Cup of Nations title in almost a quarter of a century within grasp.
The Elephants’ coach Herve Renard described Algeria as “the best team in the tournament” immediately after his side beat them 3-1 in Malabo to clinch a place in the last four, where they will face DR Congo on Wednesday.
But Renard also showed that he is surely the competition’s most tactically astute coach as he extended his own impressive unbeaten run in the Cup of Nations.
The Frenchman has suffered just one defeat in his last 15 Cup of Nations games, and that came on penalties at the hands of Nigeria when he was in charge of Zambia in 2010.
Ivory Coast captain Yaya Toure, the continent’s leading player, has yet to perform for Renard at this tournament as brilliantly as he so often does for Manchester City.
He has also constantly played down his side’s prospects despite their undoubted quality on paper, but his pragmatic approach worked for Zambia when they so memorably won the Cup of Nations in 2012 at the expense of the Ivory Coast, and now it is starting to pay off with a better team.
Some outstanding performances from his young defence, the energy of Serey Die in midfield and the decisive contributions of Max-Alain Gradel have played their part in taking the Ivory Coast to the last four, while on Sunday Wilfried Bony stepped forward with a brace of headers against the Algerians.
“When I played with Zambia against the Ivory Coast, they were much better than us, but we battled with the weapons we had and won on penalties. That is how football is,” said Renard.
“You need to be realistic and try to put the best tactics in place to beat your opponent.”
A three-man central defence marshalled by Kolo Toure wavered for a spell in the second half up against the pace and technical ability of the Algerians, but there has been a vast improvement since the qualifying campaign, when they let in 11 goals in six games.
“Eric Bailly had a great match. He was really motivated having just signed for Villarreal. I think he really deserves it,” said Renard on Sunday of the 20-year-old.
“And Wilfried Kanon is also a young player without experience but luckily we also have Kolo Toure. It’s a very inexperienced defence but thanks to Kolo there is plenty of communication.”
– ‘Extraordinary’ –
The return of Gervinho on Sunday after a two-game ban for his sending-off against Guinea at the start of the group stage was an added boost for the Ivorian attack.
The Roma player scored the third goal against Algeria in stoppage time, but there is less pressure on him to perform now that Bony and Gradel are firing on all cylinders as the Elephants move on from the Didier Drogba era.
“I think the Ivory Coast is very lucky to have a big centre-forward like Wilfried Bony just behind Didier Drogba, because I think you know very well the statistic – he was the best scorer in England in 2014, so I think that explains everything,” said Renard of the squat striker who recently joined Manchester City.
Gradel, meanwhile, is someone who Renard describes as “extraordinary to have around the squad, whether he is playing or not.”
The bronzed Renard has created an excellent team spirit and a winning mentality in his side, meaning a repeat of the 4-3 loss to DR Congo in October’s qualifying fixture in Abidjan would be an enormous surprise when the sides clash again this week.
And with Equatorial Guinea and Ghana meeting in the other half of the draw, a first Cup of Nations title since 1992 looks a very real prospect indeed for the post-Drogba Ivorians.