AFCON 2021: Why Cote d’Ivoire will not win the big prize

Despite their headline win over and elimination of the reigning champions, 'favourites' status is a little too much for the Elephants

Nicolas Pepe (2nd L) and his Ivory Coast teammates celebrate after Franck Kessie put them ahead against Algeria

It can be a risky business, putting one’s neck out like this.

Football is apt to make mugs of any sort of certitude. Just ask Algeria, who were widely tipped to retain the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title they won in Egypt in 2019. That prediction went about as well as a private, candle-lit dinner with Clifford Orji; the Fennec Foxes have left the building, and there will be no encore.

Responsible for their defenestration: Cote d’Ivoire.

Patrice Beaumelle’s side were rampant in their dismissal of Algeria, and in truth it was the north African side that was flattered by the 3-1 scoreline. It really was that definitive, that crushing.

Naturally, this has led many to immediately ascribe the ‘favourites’ tag to the Elephants. Which is understandable: the concept of a lineal champion – beating the man to become the man – is well established in other sports.

However, in this case, there is a good argument that this is premature.

There are two reasons – one historical, one tactical – that give the lie to the notion Cote d’Ivoire could claim their third AFCON title in Cameroon.

First, the former.

The last time a team stopped the defending AFCON champion and went on to win the tournament as a whole was in 1998, when Egypt beat South Africa in the final in Burkina Faso.

Surprising, is it not?

Two years after, Tunisia eliminated Egypt, and were themselves summarily dispatched in the Semi-Finals. Cameroon were knocked out by Nigeria in 2004, only for the Super Eagles to lose in the final four. In 2006, the Super Eagles once again were the title-holder slayers, but were unable to attain glory themselves.

Niger in 2012, South Africa in 2015, Morocco in 2017, Nigeria in 2019.

Since 1998, the only team to cross paths with a reigning champion and still win the title was Nigeria in 2013, who adroitly elected to draw with Zambia instead.

As a matter of fact, the trend has been elimination at the very next step, almost as though beating the reigning champions exacts such a high price, emotionally and physically, that subsequent progress is rendered impossible.

The only team to buck that was Nigeria in the last edition, who after dumping Cameroon, eliminated South Africa in the Quarter-final before getting beat by Algeria.

Clearly, being responsible for the demise of the holders is no guarantee or indicator of ultimate success.

Beating the reigning champions is bound to cause a stir. There is nothing more effective at making people reevaluate their opinions.

However, it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions from Cote d’Ivoire’s trampling of Algeria on Thursday. If anything, the outcome told us more about the Fennec Foxes than it did about the Elephants.

What was clear after the opening 10-15 minutes of their defeat to Equatorial Guinea was that, emotionally, Djamel Belmadi had lost his nerve.

At every point following their draw against Sierra Leone, Algeria played the occasion instead of the opponent. Their pride wounded by their inability to score against the Leone Stars, they resorted to roughhousing against Equatorial Guinea, playing into the hands of the weaker team. With victory as an imperative against Cote d’Ivoire, they fielded four forwards, emptying the midfield and allowing the Elephants to stampede all over them in that zone.

That really is the crux of it: somehow, Algeria managed to set themselves up twice.

A theme of Cote d’Ivoire’s performances to date has been the sheer lack of control. Whether this is by design is difficult to tell, especially as they field the metronomic Jean Michael Seri at the base of their midfield. However, whether inadvertent or otherwise, Beaumelle’s side thrive in chaotic, seesaw battles, and place their trust in the physicality and dynamism of Franck Kessie and Ibrahim Sangare to outrun overpower opponents.

The trouble with this approach, and ultimately with installing them as favourites on account of their win over Algeria, is that it takes two to make a slugfest.

By giving up the midfield in pursuit of goals, Belmadi dug Les Fennecs’ grave. Watching Sangare and Kessie shrug off and steam past a half-fit Ramiz Zerrouki and the pint-sized Ismael Bennacer felt sinful at times, as they simply had no answers.

Against an opponent less inclined to trade with them, Cote d’Ivoire’s lack of real creativity centrally would instantly be magnified. Against an opponent with the physical capability to run with them, their lack of control and proper protection for the defence would be exposed.

Having basketball matches makes for riveting viewing for the neutral, but it is far from an optimal strategy for winning tournaments.

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