The final of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations will be contested between Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. They are two of Africa’s biggest teams, but have thrived on tempered expectations and have defied daunting challenges.
Herve Renard, hero of Zambia’s AFCON triumph in 2012, was the man chosen to end the Elephants’ hoodoo on the continent. With the golden generation, synonymous as much with failure as with precocity, almost completely gone, the dapper Frenchman was able to work without the pressure some of his predecessors collapsed under.
Renard’s famous quip about the Ivorian support needing to move onto “semolina” following the “caviar” of bygone years was not so much a wry encapsulation of his lean resources as a setting forth of his mandate: to toughen up a team who, like their Orange-wearing kin the Netherlands, had acquired a taste for glorious underachievement.
There was to be no coddling, no tolerance for those who stepped out of line or underwhelmed. Starved of defensive options, Renard was unafraid to drop the most experienced centre-back available to him: Leeds’ Sol Bamba, for failing to offer leadership. He cut long-time no.1 Copa Barry, the butt of many jokes, and installed Sewe Sports’ Sylvain Gbohouo between the sticks.
The results were not instant, neither was the process painless. The crushing 4-1 defeat against Cameroon in Yaounde in September 2014 was a crushing blow, one that captain Yaya Toure referred to as a “drubbing”. They shipped four goals at home to DR Congo a month later, and finished the series with the worst defensive record of any of the qualified teams.
Yet, somehow it has all come together for Cote d’Ivoire. The return of Kolo Toure for one last ride has brought calm to a chaotic backline, and just like in 2012, Renard has gotten every major decision spot on. When Gervinho got sent off in the opening game against Guinea for a silly lashing out, the Elephants went to a back three, equalised with ten men and have not looked back since.
It is reminiscent of Louis van Gaal’s decision to play with a back three at the World Cup with the Netherlands, an approach which offers safety in numbers even when outright quality is lacking. Unlike with the Dutch though, there is nothing stale about the Ivorian build-up, with the outside centre-backs Eric Bailly and Wilfried Kanon comfortable in possession and capable of bringing the ball out of the back.
The excellent Bailly has been a revelation, already earning a move to La Liga club Villarreal. The errors in his game will be ironed out with experience, but he is already an asset at this level. His powerful run from deep unlocked the Algeria defence in the quarter-final, and is a feature that can serve as a viable weapon going forward.
Arguably no player has benefitted more from this switch than flying wing-back Serge Aurier. The PSG man can never be trusted at full-back, and seems utterly at sea when defending spatially. Going forward though, he is an attacking dynamo and fabulous crosser of the ball, and has thrived from the casting-off of defensive restraints.