Ivory Coast got off to a winning start in the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations, with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Group D rivals South Africa at the Al Salam Stadium, Cairo.
The only goal of the game was scored by Aston Villa forward Jonathan Kodjia in the second half, after missing a sitter in the first half, when he let a shot rip directly at the goalkeeper in a one-on-one situation.
The Elephants were clearly the favorites in the tie, but Bafana Bafana made sure that the 2015 champions had to earn the three points and put up a good fight, eventually caving in to the attacking pressure from the Ivorians.
Surprisingly, Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha was not named in the starting XI by coach Ibrahim Kamara, who could’ve been the difference on the pitch with his flair and finishing touch, but nonetheless the outcome was in their favor.
The pick of the bunch was definitely Nicolas Pepe, who was driving the counter-attacks and looked calm and confident when in possession. It’s a shame he wasn’t involved in the winning goal.
A penalty call by the South Africans was overlooked by the officials in the dying moments of the game, when Lars Veldwijk was pulled to the ground by Ivorian defender Wilfried Kanon, will remain one of the biggest talking points of the game.
It will also raise questions on the decision to not use the revolutionary VAR technology until the QFs at the tournament.
Now, we take a look at the three majors factors that helped the Elephants to a winning start to their campaign.
#1 Timely substitution of Zaha in place of Seri
Jean Michaël Seri started in the middle of the pitch, but from the beginning it seemed he was out of position and did not look comfortable with the ball.
What Ivory Coast needed from the beginning was the lethal combination of Zaha and Pepe running riot on the flanks to be more definitive in the final third.
This would’ve seen them get more than their sorry tally of three shots on goal in the 90 minutes and who knows, the Crystal Palace talisman might’ve fancied being on the scoresheet as well.
Soon after Ivory Coast got their goal, Kamara made the call to bring in Zaha as their first substitute in place of Seri, who had been booked for a challenge in the first half.
Zaha’s inclusion had the desired effect and pushed the South African team even deep into their own half, as they were forced to defend rather than go all out on the attack with the presence of the fleet-footed forward on the wing.
#2 South Africa did not offer much threat apart from their set-piece routines
Stuart Baxter would not have been happy watching his side’s performances in the final third. It never looked like the team wanted to get on the scoresheet as they lacked tenacity and organization going forward.
Despite enjoying a lion share possession for the better part of the game, the players just couldn’t make something happen and passed the ball back. They were happy to sit back when not in possession, that left them get exposed to waves of counter attack that followed.
It seemed after trying out their luck via open play, they focused solely on set-pieces as their only way of getting into the final third. In all fairness, they lacked imagination when in the opposition half.
It was this laid back effort that eventually allowed the Ivorians to build up pressure and finally crack the defence in the 65th minute.
#3 Ivory Coast were driving the ball forward a lot
Right from the kick-off whistle, the two-time champions made their intentions clear. They were up and running, causing all sorts of problem to the South African defenders. But Ivory Coast was certainly lacking the edge in the first half.
Nicolas Pepe, who can be playing for one of the top European clubs next season, was clearly the standout player for them. He was creating chances, letting in forward passes and linking well with Kodjia.
In the first half itself, the team came close to getting on the scoresheet, with Pepe rattling the post with his freekick from close range and poor finishing after decent buildup let them down.
Though they only had a total of three shots on goal in the entire match, it was there relentless chase of the ball, despite the unforgiving Egyptian heat that earned them the goal and three points.