Drogba's Elephants driven by painful memory
Ivory Coast know they will need to be near perfect to get past Nigeria in the quarter-finals of the African Nations Cup today.
Players are confident that this time the Elephants – as Ivory Coast are known – have what it takes to finally break through with their first title in more than 20 years, but coach Sabri Lamouchi is warning there will be "no room for error" against two-time champions Nigeria.
Ivory Coast made it to the final last year but lost to Zambia, and this might be the last chance for glory for a talented generation of players led by Didier Drogba.
Nigeria just barely advanced from the group stage but want to keep their momentum to try to win their first title since 1994.
Ivory Coast arrived as the tournament favourites but didn't impress in the group stage. They beat Togo with a last-minute winner after a lacklustre performance, then improved to defeat Tunisia 3-0, but struggled again against already eliminated Algeria, needing two late goals to earn a 2-2 draw in their final Group D match.
"We have no room for error, especially as we have in front of us a good team in Nigeria and the smallest error can cost dearly," Lamouchi said. "If we win we continue and if this is not the case we return home."
The coach wants his players to try to forget the struggles of the first round and focus on finding a way to beat Nigeria.
"Effectively it is a new competition where this match is essential to continue the adventure," Lamouchi said.
The match in Rustenburg is one of the most anticipated quarter-finals, putting head-to-head some of the tournament's biggest names. In addition to Drogba, Ivory Coast have Arsenal forward Gervinho and Manchester City brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure. Nigeria are led by Chelsea players John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses.
"I think it's going to be a great quarter-final," Mikel said. "We just have to concentrate on what we do and keep playing the way we're playing. It's going to be a very tough game. Everyone knows how good they are, but we just have to keep doing what we do, and hopefully we'll win the game."
Nigeria won the African title in 1994 and represented the continent in the World Cup that same year and in 1998. They reached the African Cup final in 2000, losing to Cameroon on penalties, and finished third in four of the past six tournaments they played. The Super Eagles didn't qualify for last year's tournament but brought a revamped squad to South Africa under the command of Stephen Keshi, the captain in 1994.
"We know what we can do and we are confident going into this match," said Keshi, who won't be able to count on suspended midfielder Fegor Ogude for today's game.
Nigeria opened with two consecutive 1-1 draws, both times after picking up the lead. They were on the brink of elimination while drawing with Ethiopia 0-0 in their final Group C match, but late penalties converted by Moses meant they advanced.
Ivory Coast came agonisingly close to the coveted title last year, when they were upset by Zambia in a penalty shoot-out. "We have that in our memories," Ivory Coast midfielder Max Gradel said. "But it was good that this tournament arrived quickly so we could start focusing on winning again."
The Saint-Etienne player said this time they are prepared to avoid surprises and go all the way.
"I think all the players in the team now are more focused because we know that we made it to the final last time but didn't win," Gradel said. "This time we are confident that we have a good chance to achieve a great thing."
Gradel credits the change in attitude to coach Lamouchi, a former French international who took over the squad last year.
"He shows us how to respect each other," he said. "It was very important for all of our players to respect each other, that was important on the pitch. We are ready to fight for each other and to help each other. That's the main difference this season and hopefully it will help us win the title this time. The coach brought a new spirit and a new way of thinking."