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Friday, July 19, 2024

Ivory Coast look like a force to be reckoned with again – at long last

The Alassane Ouattara Stadium is located in Ebimpe, a 50-minute drive north from the main area of Abidjan.

When you make the return journey late at night, you pass a bridge that crosses the Ebrie Lagoon, which is lit up in green, orange and white to represent the Ivory Coast’s flag. On Wednesday, it provided a serene and subdued scene compared to the madness that had taken place in Ebimpe a few hours before.

Smoke from green and orange flares swirled up into the sky. Emerse Fae leapt around on the touchline, unable to contain his happiness. Sebastien Haller thumped his chest while home fans waved their hands up and down. Outside the ground, police sirens were blaring as they tried to safely control thousands of people partying.

It tells you everything that you need to know about this weird and wonderful tournament that, despite sacking their head coach Jean-Louis Gasset after the group stages and being on the brink of elimination multiple times, hosts Ivory Coast will face Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations final.

They were humiliated 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea, only qualified for the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed sides and scored late equalisers against Senegal and Mali before producing dramatic victories. Somehow, it has taken them up until the semi-final to look competent and in control.

(Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

This was the first time Ivory Coast played in Abidjan, the country’s economic capital, since they lost to Equatorial Guinea during the group stage, with their previous two matches taking place in Yamoussoukro and Bouake. It felt like a homecoming with the entire ground decked out in bright orange and white shirts, apart from a small cluster of DR Congo fans wearing blue. Two weeks ago, supporters were leaving the game early in disgust at their side’s performance and now they could not stop singing and dancing.

This team has been completely transformed and one of the big factors behind that is Simon Adingra and Haller are fully fit. Brighton & Hove Albion winger Adingra was recovering from a hamstring injury at the start of the tournament while Borussia Dortmund’s Haller struggled with an ankle issue, and they both trained separately from their team-mates.

Adingra made his first appearance as an 83rd-minute substitute during the defeat to Equatorial Guinea while Haller made his comeback against Senegal in the round of 16. Ivory Coast’s 1-0 victory over DR Congo on Wednesday was the first time they had both started a game at this year’s AFCON.

Adingra is unpredictable and pulls off clever skills that lift the crowd when things threaten to become too intense. In the 34th minute, he received the ball in his own half from a DR Congo corner and dribbled close to 30 metres up the pitch before winning a throw-in. There was a cheeky backheel flick for Haller along with a couple of nutmegs. Adingra is 22 and lacks the experience of Nicolas Pepe and Max Gradel, his competitors out wide, but he is playing for a better club in a better division — that quality rose to the fore.

Match-winner Haller, meanwhile, has played for some top sides in Europe, including Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and West Ham United, compared to his deputy Jean-Philippe Krasso, who is contracted to Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade. The 29-year-old is a physically dominant striker with good link-up play, which means he combines perfectly with Adingra for slick one-twos while Franck Kessie pushes high up the pitch to latch on to any second balls.

Fae dropped Kessie for Jean Michael Seri in the last-16 clash against Senegal but the former AC Milan and Barcelona midfielder came off the bench to equalise and converted the winning penalty. He returned to the starting XI with a solid display in the 2-1 victory over Mali and took it up another level on Wednesday evening.

Inside the first 15 minutes, Kessie received the ball on the edge of his own box and ghosted past Gael Kakuta and Charles Pickel. The move ended with Ivory Coast winning a corner and it all stemmed from Kessie’s bravery under pressure.

There was a no-look pass that was flicked over a defender’s head, powerful shots with his left foot, and crunching tackles. He looked emboldened playing behind Adingra and Haller, effectively combining with them on multiple occasions, and in front of Seri. This was Ivory Coast’s best performance at this year’s AFCON because they finally had their most important players available.

Kessie is one of the senior figures within Ivory Coast’s squad and admitted that his team “looked at ourselves in the mirror” following their loss to Equatorial Guinea. “It affected us a lot,” the 27-year-old said. “We knew it would be difficult to progress. It was our failure but we were able to go through. We could not do worse. We were determined and committed to show (people) a different image.”

Sebastien Haller

Haller celebrates scoring the winning goal (Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images)

Fae has a couple of big decisions to make for Sunday’s final against Nigeria.

Wily Boly started at centre-back against DR Congo but suffered discomfort in his thigh towards the end. Odilon Kossounou impressively handled Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Ismaila Sarr, but was sent off for making two clumsy tackles in the quarter-final against Mali. Can Kossounou be trusted to handle the occasion if Boly is not fit?

Captain Serge Aurier was unavailable for the semi-final and Wilfried Singo covered him at right-back. Singo was solid defensively and provided more of a threat on the overlap than Aurier. He whipped two perfect crosses into the box for Adingra and Haller, which they both headed wide. Fans had already started celebrating when Haller connected with the ball because they were so convinced he would score. A similar situation occurred in the second half when he chipped the ball over Lionel Mpasi but it bounced wide.

It will be a difficult challenge beating Nigeria, who have only conceded twice in six games. However, Ivory Coast are a completely different side to the one that lost 1-0 to the same opponents in the group stages.

“Two weeks ago, with the defeat here against Equatorial Guinea, we were far from imagining we would qualify for another final,” Fae said. “I’m very happy. It’s like a dream for us.”

They are only one win away from making that dream a reality.

(Top photo: Sia Kambou/AFP)

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