For Herve Renard – the man who masterminded Zambia’s astounding journey to the 2012 AFCON crown – it was not meant to turn out like this when he assumed the Ivorian helm back in July.
That Zambian accomplishment earned Renard iconic status within the tapestry of African football, however such prestigious billing also brings grave expectations.
So revered is the Frenchmen that anticipation was rife that in Renard Ivory Coast finally possessed a coach capable of moulding the serial underperforming elephants from a collection of individuals into a cohesive unit.
Ivory Coast’s historical problems cut deep into the psych, with their recent past scripting a narrative of a golden generation consistently failing to meet expectations yet in spite of that flaky nature qualification for major tournaments had never before presented a substantial stumbling block.
Allocation into one of the more taxing groups alongside West African rivals Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone meant Renard’s inception assignment had potential to become uncomfortable, yet few envisaged with two games to play the qualification equation would be outside of the Ivoirian’s hands.
Cameroon – without a successful qualification since 2010 and entering the process off the back of a World Cup campaign which at best could be described as disenchanting – were perceived to be in state of disarray and thus the African giant presumed in most danger of missing the qualification boat. Yet the Indomitable have regained their roar to virtually seal their qualification spot, whilst by contrast dark clouds linger in regards to the elephants position at January’s showpiece.
To an extent, the Ivorians’ struggles are not unforeseen, given that Renard’s rein has coincided with the beginning of the end for that earlier mentioned golden generation – alongside Didier Zokora the talismanic Didier Drogba called time on his elephants career post Brazil 2014, at the same time Kolo Toure was seemingly resigned to the scrap heap following the conclusion of that competition.
Nonetheless, even accounting for those departures, the Ivorians can still boast an abundance of quality – Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony just three examples of the extensive talent at Renard’s disposal – and thus there can be minimal defence for their underperformance throughout qualification to date.
The current picture paints Ivory Coast third place in their group level on points with DR Congo but crucially the Congolese can boast a superior goal difference, thus meaning missing the qualification voyage is now a serious threat for the underperforming Ivorians.
A 2-1 success over Sierra Leone in Abidjan suggests a respectable opening, that outcome though didn’t narrate the full story of what was a hugely rocky inception for Renard, given that with less than half an hour to play the elephants were staring at the most ignominious of defeats.
Seydou Doumbia and Gervinho on that occasion sparred Ivory Coast’s blushes, nonetheless there was to be no reprieve three days later as the elephants were mauled 4-0 by a resurgent Cameroon.
That defeat in Yaoundé laid the foundations for the calamitous defending which has gone on to characterise the Ivorians’ campaign to date. Achieving victory in Congo in spite of several hairy moments outlined the storm had at least temporarily been weathered, however there would be no denying the defensive demons in the reverse fixture as in catastrophic fashion Renard’s side slumped to a rare home defeat.
Three times in the space of 15 first half minutes Congo were able to breach the elephants crumbling defences and whilst two moments of Salomon Kalou magic appeared to have rescued a precious point, Jeremy Bokila’s stoppage time strike ensured there would be no great escape – with it plunging Ivory Coast’s qualification prospects into crisis.
However for all the defensive blunders that personified that defeat in Abidjan, an absence of game management through the fixtures final furlongs must shoulder a substantial degree of the blame regarding the precarious position Ivory Coast now found themselves rooted in.
Having drawn level in spite of being reduced to ten men, rather closing shop in order to preserve what would have been a critical point – a draw would have left them three clear of DR Congo – the Ivorians naively continued to press and with it paid a potentially fatal sacrifice.
The adrenaline of rising from a seemingly inevitable defeat undeniably played a part in the Ivorians’ mentality, whilst considering their frailties attack might have been perceived as the most viable form of defence nonetheless it is difficult not to question Renard’s approach considering the group situation and the limited time left on the clock.
Despite that dispiriting humbling the situation is not yet terminal even if mathematically DR Congo hold the automatic qualification eight ball. Ivory Coast’s resolve in initially rescuing a 3-1 deficit against Congo indicates the players are perhaps beginning to buy into Renard’s ethos, at the same time in regards to remaining fixtures the pendulum is swinging in their favour.
Next on Ivory Coast’s agenda are a bewildered Sierra Leone in Abidjan, whereas by contrast DR Congo must visit a resurgent Cameroon side still in need of inking in their spot at January’s showpiece. The Ivorians must also tackle Cameroon, however they will do so with both home advantage and likely against a nation already qualified.
Ten points would barring a sequence of inconceivable circumstances liable seal progression, nevertheless the influence of Ivory Coast’s defective rear-guard should not be undervalued – to highlight the extent of that problem their current tally of ten goals conceded is the highest throughout the qualification process.
Having already utilised three centre back pairings – Sol Bamba, Ousmane Viera, Brice Dja Djédjé, Franck Kessie and Lamine Koné have all been trialled – in an effort to plug Ivory Coast’s persistently leaky defensive line, Renard has now reverted to the apparently redundant old hands Zokora and Kolo Toure – unfortunately adding to the Frenchman’s problems the former has rebuffed the crisis call.
Toure is far from an ideal option with his best years long since sailed, yet in the short-term and with the inconceivable now a genuine possibility his invaluable experience could prove a vital asset in the Ivory Coast’s bid to navigating the threat of what would be a humiliating exit at the first hurdle.