World Cup team preview: Ivory Coast

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Getting to know…Ivory Coast: Possibly Africa’s strongest contender this year, Les Elephants have a strong squad but surprisingly a weak history as a soccer nation as far as results go.

The Ivory Coast has never escaped from the group stage of the World Cup, with this year being just their third go at the competition.  In addition, they’ve been relative newcomers on the African stage, with just one previous win in the African Cup of Nations (1992) and only in the past four competitions have they put together a string of deep runs.

However, if there’s one knock on the Ivorian team, it’s that years of building from the ground up has seen it run with a core group of players for years now, and that core is aging. The Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya are 33 and 31 respectively, and while the younger of the two seems to just be peaking now, he too may not have many years left on the international stage.

But there is also relief coming.  Wilfried Bony looks poised to take 36-year-old Didier Drogba’s place once the ageless wonder finally calls it quits, with Lacina Traore there to add another young attacking threat as well.  While he’s often a red card waiting to happen, midfield enforcer Chieck Tiote is there to help Yaya Toure if his legs do indeed tire.

It’s a strong squad, both literally and figuratively, and the typically African style of play could take them to new heights in Brazil.

Record in qualifying: The Ivorians dominated its CAF qualification group of Morocco, Tanzania, and Gambia, going undefeated throughout group play with four wins and two draws.  In the knockout round they drew Senegal, and a 3-1 home victory in the first leg gave them room to work with, and they put Senegal down with a 1-1 draw in the second leg. Salomon Kalou finished the competition with five goals, one behind the leading tally of six.

A look at Group C: Ivory Coast could be Africa’s strongest squad, but they also have the best chance to advance for another reason: their group is, at first glance, soft.  It’s not “easy” as there are no easy groups once you get to the big show, but is doesn’t seem to be powerful.  Colombia is facing a defensive crisis, Greece possibly overperformed during UEFA qualification, and Japan has a few top talents but as a team isn’t exactly a contender.

The Elephants have their own issues to deal with, but they look poised for the knockout round should they capitalize on their less challenging group.

Game schedule:

14 June, 21:00 ET, Recife: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
19 June, 12:00 ET, Brasilia: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast
24 June, 16:00 ET, Fortaleza: Greece vs. Ivory Coast

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Yaya Toure may now be the Ivory Coast’s best player, but it’s impossible to forget about Didier Drogba and his storied career.

Star player: Yaya Toure

Fresh off winning the Premier League title, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure is looking now to lead his country to success as well.  With Didier Drogba likely on the final legs of his international career, the 36-year-old has shown his age this past year at Galatasaray, and it’s Toure’s time to assert his dominance in the midfield.

He’s known for his midfield presence, his incredible precision, and his free kicks, but there’s no doubt that Toure can score goals.  He has a cannon of a right foot, and with 20 goals for City last season, Toure will look to add to Drogba and Bony’s production up front.  With Toure giving defenders yet another body to think about, this attack is dangerous if it fulfills its potential.

Manager: Sabri Lamouchi

French-born and of Tunisian descent, the Ivory Coast position is Lamouchi’s first managerial job after a successful European career came to an end in 2009.  Lamouchi spent time as a player at Monaco, Inter, and Marseille before finishing up in the Qatari league.  He also earned 12 caps for the French national team.

The 42-year-old was appointed just a week before World Cup qualifying began in 2012, but assimilated well into the fold and kept his country from faltering as the continent’s number 1 seed. It was a curious appointment at the time, considering his predecessor Francois Zahoui had just led the Ivory Coast to the finals of the African Cup of Nations, losing to Zambia.  Discussions began to keep Zahoui, the first and only Ivorian to ever coach the team, at the helm but those negotiations broke down and Lamouchi was brought in.

Lamouchi has admitted the hardest part of his job at the moment is taking a squad of players all at completely different fitness levels after the club season and getting them to work together while also leveling out their fitness.  However, his

Secret Weapon: Experience

Experience is often used as a euphemism for “age” and in this case that’s not totally untrue, but it’s impossible to ignore the international careers of many in the squad.  Defenders Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora both have over 100 caps, as does Didier Drogba up front, but those aren’t the only experienced members.

Gervinho and Salomon Kalou both have over 50 caps and are both 27 and 28 respectively, and both are coming off positive club seasons – Gervinho in particular.  Cheik Tiote, Sol Bamba, and Seydou Doumbia all have World Cup experience and are under the age of 30.  This is a team that has been here before, and that should absolutely help them overcome a few weaknesses.

Prediction: Given the opportunity of a softer group, the Ivorians take advantage.  Signs point to a letdown from Greece, and that should allow Côte d’Ivoire to leapfrog and earn their first-ever knockout round berth.

Xhaka, Shaqiri display controversial goal celebrations in win over Serbia

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A seemingly innocuous goal celebration performed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri has thinly veiled, politically charged undertones and could potentially land the pair in FIFA disciplinary proceedings following Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Serbia.

Both displayed a bird hand signal as they celebrated scoring goals, and considering their pre-match comments, post-match social media posts, and ethnic backgrounds, those were clearly meant to represent the double-eagle symbol in the middle of the Albanian flag.

This is a complicated political scenario, but it could be considered by FIFA to be politically provocative. Shaqiri is Albanian, born in Kosovo before moving to Switzerland with his parents and three siblings when he was just a year old. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is not recognized as a sovereign nation by Serbia. Xhaka is of Albanian descent, and his father previously participated in a demonstration against the communist Yugoslavian rule in Kosovo that landed him a lengthy jail sentence. Albania and Serbia have a particularly tumultuous relationship, with their leaders meeting for the first time in over 60 years in 2014, which caused tempers to flare.

Scoring against the Serbian national team and then displaying a hand signal representing the Albanian flag is clearly meant to jab the Serbian team and its fans. Following the match, Xhaka posted a picture of his celebration on his Instagram story, with the caption in Albanian roughly translated to, “Here you go Serbia, this is why they call me Granit Kosovo!” He deleted the post, and replaced it with an image of his celebration side-by-side with Shaqiri’s, with the slightly more cryptic caption, “We did it, bro!” in English.

FIFA is wildly against any type of political demonstration or involvement in the world of soccer. The governing body has punished individual nation federations in the past for government involvement, while political demonstrations on the field are fiercely frowned upon.

Shaqiri could be in especially hot water. The Stoke City midfielder wore boots with the flags of Switzerland and Kosovo. He has made it clear in the past that he values his roots, saying, “I was born in Kosovo, but I grew up in Switzerland. I live both mentalities, it’s not a big difference.”

Switzerland finishes its World Cup group stage round with a match against Costa Rica on Wednesday in which a win would secure a spot in the knockout stage.

World Cup referees miss yet another physical penalty in box

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Let’s get this out of the way first: VAR (Video-Assistant Refereeing) has been a fabulous addition to the game of soccer. In the 2018 World Cup, the availability of replay has done nothing but improve the ability of referees to correctly officiate the game, providing an outlet for mistakes to be corrected. Earlier on Friday, a referee gave a penalty to Brazil for a foul on Neymar, but with VAR applied correctly, the penalty was wiped off after it was determined Neymar went down easily. The game continued as it should, and a clear and obvious error was erased.

Unfortunately, despite the clear improvement to the game VAR provides, there’s still some work to be done in one very specific area of the game.

[ MORE: Recap of Serbia 1-2 Switzerland ]

On multiple occasions this World Cup, referees have missed wrestling matches in the penalty area, allowing defenders to essentially get away with murder instead of awarding attackers a deserved penalty. The worst example of this yet took place in the 66th minute of the 2-1 Switzerland win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, already with a goal to his name early in the match, went up to meet a set-piece delivery with his head. He was fully bear-hugged by Switzerland captain Steven Lichtsteiner, and while being wrapped up, was then rugby tackled by Swiss central defender Fabian Schar.

Yet somehow, Mitrovic was called for the foul, as the referee whistled him for ending up over the back of his defender on a genuine attempt to play the ball.

With every replay shown, it became more and more evident that not only should a penalty have been awarded, but the referee missed a clear and obvious call. Yet the match referee, German Felix Brych, was given no assistance from the VAR booth, left on an island after blowing the call.

There have been so many instances of this throughout the tournament, despite a public directive reportedly given by FIFA to referees asking them to crack down on physical play in the box, according to Fox rules analyst Dr. Joe Machnik. England striker Harry Kane was wrestled to the ground numerous times against Tunisia with no call, while many Egypt fans felt hard done by after Mohamed Salah was bullied in the box repeatedly against Russia.

The more defenders can get away with while defending set pieces in front of net, the more the game will be muddied by controversy, clouding an otherwise glittering debut for VAR on the international stage. That’s frustrating.

Serbia 1-2 Switzerland: Late Shaqiri break shatters Serbian hearts

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One of the most exciting games of the 2018 World Cup proved entertaining from start to finish, ended by a stunning breakaway goal by Xherdan Shaqiri that capped a 2-1 Switzerland comeback victory over Serbia.

The start of the game was all Serbia, with Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic the most dangerous option up front, and he delivered on that promise just five minutes in. After a pair of chances just kept out by Yann Sommer, Mitrovic powered in a header off a Dusan Tadic cross to put Serbia in front early on.

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The goal confirmed yet another game without a 0-0 draw, 26 in a row to start the tournament, marking the World Cup record set back in 1954 when every single game in the Switzerland event featured a goal.

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After the goal, the game exploded, with Serbia looking to double its lead and Switzerland hoping to gain a grip on the match. Without a second coming, Switzlerland began to build promisingly, and had its first chance right on the half-hour mark as Steven Zuber through-ball sprung Blerim Dzemaili, but his sliding effort was saved brilliantly by Vladimir Stojkovic at the last second. They had a second chance minutes later, but for some reason Xherdan Shaqiri decided for one too many crosses rather than taking the open shot himself.

Serbia didn’t just look to see out the first half, though, as the star of the first half Dusan Tadic nearly gave his team another lift. First, he delivered a fabulous corner that stunningly skipped through the box untouched. Then, just before the break, Tadic came agonizingly close to what would have been a fabulous half-volley strike that flew viciously wide.

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After the break, the back-and-forth action continued, and Granit Xhaka struck an absolute stunner on the counter to level the match seven minutes into the second half. Shaquiri’s initial attempt from the right edge of the box was blocked and the rebound fell to the Arsenal midfielder outside the penalty area. His follow-up was a laser, curling through the defense and past a wrong-footed Stojkovic.

The chaos continued, with Serbia swinging back into the initiative. Mitrovic had a penalty shout turned down after being bear-hugged and wrestled to the ground by a pair of defenders, and minutes later Aleksandr Kolarov delivered a luscious cross into the box but nobody was there to tap it home.

Serbia began to tire as the game inched towards the final minutes, and Switzerland had most of the late pressure. One moment of brilliance caught the Serbians sleeping, and it proved the difference. Mario Gavranovic fed Shaqiri on the break from his own half, and free on goal the Stoke City winger made no mistake as the last ticks of regulation came off.

The win for Switzerland moves them to four points through the first two matches, leaving them level atop Group E with Brazil on points but in second thanks to an inferior goal differential. Serbia, meanwhile, sits third with three points. Switzerland would advance to the knockout stage with a win or draw in their final match against Costa Rica, while the winner of Brazil vs. Serbia will advance as well, with Brazil advancing in the event of a draw.

Southgate asks media to “help the team” after lineup leak

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England management is unhappy with the media after a coach was snapped with the proposed lineup for Saturday’s match against Panama.

Assistant manager Steve Holland was photographed holding a teamsheet that appeared to show a pair of changes in the England attack, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford partnering with Harry Kane up front. While Southgate attempted to play down the leak, stating the piece of paper was “just a squad list” and “the next sheet has different players in different positions,” he was also clearly frustrated with the media’s decision to run the photos.

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“Obviously any time, if we were to give the opposition the opportunity of having our team it’s a disadvantage to us,” Southgate said in his pre-match press conference. “So of course our media has to decide whether they want to help the team or not.

The teamsheet showed no changes to the defense, with the team playing a three-center-back system as Kyle Walker continues his role along that back line. Kieran Trippier stays in at wing-back opposite Ashley Young, with Jordan Henderson sitting in the midfield between them. Jesse Lingard retains his place in the attack centrally with help from the addition of Loftus-Cheek, and the pair of strikers ahead of them.

Walker was also asked about the leak, and he said Holland apologized to the team, even if they felt it was unnecessary. “He’s apologised to us all in training, which we had a bit of banter with him about, and that was it.”

“I think if you guys try to keep it to yourself and don’t bring it out to the world,” Walker added, “because it’s not going to help us come the later stages of the tournament, please God we get there. All the rest of the world’s seen our team now, if that is the team or if not. As I say, you guys have to do your little bit, so if you could just please help us with that it would be polite.”