Either Sabri Lamouchi was hoping to change things up or he was just trying to keep his squad fresh. Regardless, the Cote d’Ivoire coach got the result he sought, one which leaves his team within inches of the quarterfinals at the African Cup of Nations.
With an early goal from winger Gervinho, Les Elephants claimed a 21st minute lead. Last goals from Yaya Touré and Didier Ya Konan gave the Ivorians a 3-0 win and first place in Group D.
It was another Didier, however, who took early headlines. Cote d’Ivoire captain Didier Drogba was on the bench to start this game, and although he came on for the match’s final 23 minutes, the star striker’s unprecedented benching created news before kickoff. While decision was likely a fitness concern, it was still the first time the former Chelsea start had been dropped during his international career.
That wasn’t the only change Lamouchi made. Veteran defender Kolo Touré was left out, as was winger Max Gradel and attacking midfielder Ya Konan (whose late goal came as a substitute). Chieke Tioté, Romaric, Lacina Diarra, and Salomon Kalou got their first starts of the competition. Didier Zokora dropped from midfield into central defense while Yaya Touré moved into an attacking midfield role.
“It doesn’t matter who plays, who doesn’t play,” Kolo Touré said after Les Elephants’ victory. “We want to go back with the trophy.”
The changes produced an early energy, Les Elephants continuously trying to slip the ball behind the Tunisian defense for Gervinho and Kalou cutting in from wide. The tactic led to the team’s first goal when Gervinho caused a turnover, found Diarra in the middle of the penalty area, and then ran onto a backheeled pass before finishing in the top of the Tunisian net.
The game settled after the goal, each side playing out the next hour with few chances to score. Tunisia’s best chance came late in the second half when Saber Khelifa’s volley from near the penalty spot was redirected straight at goalkeeper Boubacar Barry.
Touré’s 87th minute goal finally sealed it for the Ivorians, with Ya Konan’s right-footed finish from 17 yards out giving Group D’s leaders a deceptively decisive result.
“Collectively that was one of our best games,” Salomon Kalou said after the match.
In Wednesday’s highly anticipated match with Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire may only need a draw to clinch Group D. They sit on six points and own head-to-head tiebreakers over both Tunisia and Togo. If Algeria fail to defeat Togo today, Les Elephants will have their group locked up before starting their final game, a just state of a team whom, while imperfect, have looked as good as any in this competition.
Tunisia find themselves in a tougher spot after their decisive loss. It’s unlikely goal difference will help them now, so ahead of a final group match with Togo, they will be hoping for a Sparrow Hawks result today against the Desert Foxes. Get it, and the Tunisians can advance with a victory over Togo. Without it, they may be at the mercy of tiebreakers. At best.