Ivory Coast start African Nations Cup defence expecting win over Togo
Two years ago, when goalkeeper Boubacar Barry scored the penalty that won Ivory Coast a first African Nations Cup since 1992, there was barely a dry eye among those who understood exactly what it meant. This was the crowning moment for the remains of a vaunted "golden generation" whose powers were on the verge of expiry and a barely conceivable triumph for Barry, the veteran who had often been viewed as a weak link in the Elephants' attempts to be a world power.
If that was the last roar of a group that had already lost Didier Drogba and saw several players -- such as Barry and the Toure brothers -- retire or be phased out shortly afterwards, this year their successors sound their own battle cry. Ivory Coast need to start winning honours consistently if they are to be seen as Africa's indisputable leading power, and Monday's opener against Togo will be a useful litmus test of just how far Michel Dussuyer's remodelled side can go.
Ivory Coast should make short work of a weak, under-resourced Togo but their performance might be worth greater attention than the result. While Serge Aurier, Wilfried Kanon and Manchester United's Eric Bailly -- all still young enough to improve considerably -- are among those who remain from that successful campaign in Equatorial Guinea, the key to their fortunes may lie in how their newer recruits blend with the existing core.
There was certainly encouragement in their pre-tournament friendly against a traditionally obdurate Uganda when, during a convincing 3-0 win, Wilfried Zaha scored his first goal since committing to the country of his birth. Zaha had set up Giovanni Sio's winner against Sweden, on his debut, four days previously and his form in the Premier League for struggling Crystal Palace suggests the Elephants have a player finally delivering upon his early promise.
With Gervinho injured, it was outstanding timing to recruit Zaha, who may well prove to be an upgrade, and early indications are that he has settled in adeptly. "The absence of Gervinho weighs heavily on us," Dussuyer said prior to the tournament. "The addition of Zaha is, therefore, a wonderful boost. His style is similar to that of Gervinho and we hope he can trouble opposing defences just as much."
Zaha joins a pool of young players that includes the Atalanta midfielder Franck Kessie, who at just 20 is turning heads across Europe and has been strongly linked with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Kessie forms part of a central three that on paper might be the tournament's most exciting, joining captain Serey Die and the Nice assist machine Jean Seri.
The team's biggest issues may lie further forward, with Wilfried Bony toiling at Stoke City and Salomon Kalou a fading force despite decent form at Hertha Berlin. Jonathan Kodjia, the Aston Villa striker, may well lead the line and, while he has made a spectacular start to life in international football with four goals in his first five appearances, it is a push to suggest Ivory Coast possess a top-quality striker. That is hardly an uncommon observation in African football, or anywhere else, these days but the Elephants could certainly use some potency: their three games before those January friendlies all ended 0-0.
Yet they have still gone 21 matches unbeaten and it seems a push to expect Togo, back at the African Nations Cup after missing out in 2015, to terminate the run. Dussuyer might fret over his attacking resources but his opposite number, Claude Le Roy, would love an iota of those options. He will almost certainly have to rely on Emmanuel Adebayor, whose eventful but largely outstanding service to Togo continues despite him not having been registered with a club since last June.
Adebayor says he has been keeping fit during this period of exile, playing with local sides in Togo and passing on his expertise, and knows that -- at 32 -- he needs to make full use of what is probably the last high-level shop window for his services.
"We have been talking to a few clubs and if I get one as a result of playing for Togo this month that will be fine," he said. "But I am not going to the tournament just to find a new club. I am going to play for my country."
Perhaps Adebayor should not be underestimated; the wily Le Roy must definitely be taken seriously. He is taking a team to the African Nations Cup for the ninth time and took Congo to the last eight two years ago. Few foreigners know African football as well as Le Roy, who often cuts an exasperated figure on the touchline but has a profound love for the continent.
He has said his team, who squeaked through as one of the two best runners-up in qualifying, can be "troublemakers" in Gabon and there is certainly a degree of romance, of welcome continuity with times past, to the presences of the Frenchman and his captain.
That does not win you football matches but it is another reason that this one, in the northern city of Oyem, will be worth watching. Both teams are at different stages of transition but, for different reasons, the exploits of past generations still need to be drawn upon.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.