Ivory Coast’s uphill task just got even steeper

June 4, 2010

Ivory Coast were been labelled the dark horses of this tournament by many, presumably all of whom were fortunate enough to miss their pathetic display at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, where they recorded a 0-0 draw with Burkina Faso in the group stage, and were eventually knocked out by an average Algeria side.

To get to the knockout stages, the Ivory Coast must get past Brazil and Portugal. To do this, they have appointed Sven-Goran Eriksson – England fans will appreciate the irony there. In a sense you have to feel sorry for the Ivory Coast – for the second World Cup in a row they are the most-fancied African side, but find themselves drawn against two top-class teams; last time they were up against Holland and Argentina.

Drogba absence

Today’s news that Didier Drogba will miss the tournament is an absolutely huge blow for the Ivory Coast. As captain and main goalscorer, the Ivorian system was essentially entirely based around him. Like with Chelsea, Drogba is at his best when he’s the main man, and for his national side he was afforded that status as much as any other striker in international football.

His replacement will probably be Aruna Dindane, who spent last season on loan to Portsmouth (and along with Bakari Kone, who will now be the ‘first deputy’ for the forward roles, has just signed for Qatari league club Lekhwiya). With the greatest of respect due to Dindane, it’s a big drop in quality. Even more crucial might be the fact that he is a completely different player – he is half a foot smaller, to start with – and with Drogba playing a fairly classic target man role in national colours, it may necessitate a change of plan for Eriksson.

Continuity from previous regime

Elsewhere, Eriksson appears to have changed the first XI very little from Vahid Halilhodzic’s favoured side. Despite being a committed 4-4-2 man himself, the Swede has clearly recognized that the identity of the Ivory Coast’s best players almost necessitates playing a 4-3-3, for he has pacey wingers, physically imposing midfielders, attacking full-backs (and a striker who liked playing upfront on his own).

The one player who plays in a slightly unfamiliar role in the side is Yaya Toure. At club level he plays in a holding midfield position and often drops in as a centre-back when needed, but for the Ivory Coast, he plays a much more dynamic role, as he was used to doing during the early part of his club career. He will probably be the most advanced midfield player, with Didier Zokora taking the holding role.

The identity of the third midfielder remains to be seen, but the most likely choice is Cheick Tiote, who spent most of the season as a substitute for Steve McClaren’s FC Twente team. He is a less physical player than his two midfield partners and is more of a ball-player, with the tendency to drift into wide midfield positions to receive the ball in space.

The back four operate as you would expect – Emmanuel Eboue charges forward from right-back, whilst there is a mirror image on the opposite side with Siake Tiene, who is presumably preferred over the solid Stuttgart left-back Arthur Boka because of his attacking ability.

Upfront, Saloman Kalou will switch sides with with Gervinho. The pacey Lille striker will see Drogba’s absence as his cue to step up and become the Ivory Coast’s most dangerous forward, and could emerge as a star of the tournament.

This all assumes that Eriksson won’t completely change his system in Drogba’s absence – a 4-4-2 would probably feature the same eleven players, but with Kalou dropping to one wing, Tiote shifting sideways to the other, and Gervinho moving to a central striking position. A 4-4-1-1 would see Dindane as the lone striker with Gervinho offering support from deep.

Lone striker formations have become increasingly popular in recent seasons, but as Liverpool have found with Fernando Torres’ injury problems, and Arsenal have with Robin van Persie’s long-term lay-off in recent months, the team can look completely blunt if you have to do without your best striker.

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