BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — As two of world football’s underachieving nations, Ivory Coast and Colombia will be desperate not to let slip a rare chance to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup when they meet in Brasilia on Thursday.
Both teams opened Group C with victories, meaning another in the Brazilian capital will almost certainly guarantee a place in the last 16.
“It’s looking a little bit like a final of the group,” Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi said, “(and) I’m pretty sure the winner will be qualified for the next phase.”
That would be a first for the Ivorians, who failed to get out of difficult groups in 2006 and ’10 — their only previous appearances on the world’s biggest stage. It continued a trend of underperformance at major tournaments following failures at the last five African Cup tournaments when they were favorites each time.
Colombia, meanwhile, has only advanced from its group once in four World Cups — in 1990 when the team was eliminated in the following match. Expectations had been tempered this time round after star striker Radamal Falcao was ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury.
Yet a 3-0 win over Greece has raised belief that the Colombians have the tools to cope without their one world-class player, with decent alternatives in attack.
“Colombia proved (against Greece) that we have many positive assets,” Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said. “We can play, we can create good opportunities and we can take them.
“All the players did what they were expected to do and that makes us very confident.”
Much of the talk surrounding Ivory Coast also centers on a striker.
The 36-year-old Didier Drogba, one of Africa’s greatest players and taking part in what surely is his final World Cup, inspired a turnaround in the Ivorians’ opening match against Japan when he came on as a substitute with his team 1-0 behind. Within four minutes, they were 2-1 ahead and that’s how it finished.
Will that be enough to earn Drogba a starting spot ahead of Wilfried Bony? Probably not, Lamouchi suggested.
“People love Didier Drogba and I know there are a lot of lovers of Drogba’s style,” Lamouchi said. “But you have to understand the last time he played 90 minutes was a few months ago in Turkey. He’s just recovered from injury. He made a lot of sacrifices to be here at the World Cup.”
In Falcao’s absence, Teofilo Gutierrez is having to step up as Colombia’s chief striker and he is already off the mark in Brazil, scoring the team’s second against Greece.
In fact, coach Jose Pekerman is blessed with forwards in the country’s new generation, with back-ups Jackson Martinez and Carlos Bacca having just enjoyed strong seasons with Porto and Sevilla. With playmakers James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado starting the World Cup well, Colombia won’t be short of goals in front of its vast, loud and colourful traveling support at this tournament.
It’s in defense, where the 38-year-old Mario Yepes still resides, where Colombia’s problems may lie. And with Yaya Toure playing behind the front three of Salomon Kalou, Gervinho and either Drogba or Bony, Ivory Coast also have exciting options going forward.
“We will try to improve what we did against Greece and neutralize Ivory Coast’s attack,” Colombia midfielder Carlos Sanchez said Monday.
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