The Elephants of the Ivory Coast walk into the World Cup as arguably Africa’s biggest hope.
With Colombia billed as Group C favourites, Ivory Coast’s clash with Japan is key for momentum as they seek to establish the upper-hand in the race for the runners-up spot. Coach Sabri Lamouchi’s preparations for the the tournament have been hampered by concerns over the match sharpness of regulars in his starting XI,
Sol Bamba, one of the first-choice centre-halves, hasn’t played a single game of competitive football at club level this year. Even when he isn’t injured, his game is riddled with errors that make you question whether he is fully fit.
His performance in the 2-1 warm-up friendly loss to Bosnia, his first competitive match since December, showed the long-term injury has just compounded them.
More worryingly, Yaya Toure hasn’t played a part in any of the friendlies. The African Footballer of the Year has been nursing an injury ever since limping out of Manchester City’s final game of the season. The Ivorian Football Federation sent him to Qatari sports medicine specialists Aspetar in Doha to speed his recovery.
Still, despite gradually responding well to treatment and joining the pre-World Cup camp in Dallas, the City man has yet to fully train with the squad.
Lamouchi has admitted he is unsure whether he will be fit to start the opening game against Japan. If Yaya Toure isn’t fully fit, Max Gradel will be the beneficiary.
A winger by trade, the former Leeds player has been utilised as an attacking midfielder in warm up friendlies and, though he hasn’t shone, it would allow him and the players either side of him – Gervinho on the left wing, and Salomon Kalou on the right – to interchange positions.
On a positive note, Didier Drogba, the emotional heartbeat of the side, has overcome his fitness concerns. This time four years ago, there were worries whether he would play any part in the World Cup after he dislocated his shoulder in a pre-tournament friendly versus Japan.
This time around, there were injury concerns of a different nature. A groin injury saw the former Chelsea striker undergo an operation at the Aspetar Centre in Doha and ruled out for the rest of the season.
There have also been concerns whether he is the right man to lead the line over the last 18 months. Aged 36, Drogba is understandably on the wane and there have been calls for Swansea’s Wilfried Bony to dismantle him as the solitary striker.
Yet there is still life in the old Drog. He has been involved in all three goals the Ivory Coast have scored in their friendlies, scoring two and assisting one. If anything, he looks fitter than ever and perfectly conditioned for a memorable swansong on the world stage.