An inability to get the best out of Yaya Toure has contributed to leaving the Africa Cup of Nations hopes of Herve Renard’s Ivory Coast in the balance with one crucial group game to come.
The Elephants have twice had to come from behind to draw matches in Equatorial Guinea, with substitute Max-Alain Gradel scoring four minutes from time to earn a 1-1 stalemate with Mali in Malabo on Saturday.
That result came after Seydou Doumbia’s scoring cameo from the bench secured a 1-1 draw with Guinea in a game marked by the sending-off of the dangerous Gervinho.
In a section in which all matches thus far have been drawn, the Ivorians still have everything to play for ahead of a final game against Cameroon on Wednesday.
But it remains to be seen whether a side who can boast the four-time reigning African player of the year in their captain Yaya Toure, not to mention the usually prolific Wilfried Bony, can find the form required to make a major impact on this Cup of Nations.
Frenchman Renard, who was only appointed last summer, has continually insisted that it would be wrong to expect too much from a team that has lost retired stars like Didier Drogba and Didier Zokora.
“In football things need to be built. I’ve only been here for five months. We have needed to create a different spirit to what we had before,” he said after Saturday’s game.
“Before we had a team that could get through the first round very easily, practically without making an effort. They could rotate their squad for their last game, but now that’s not possible.
“First of all because the side is not as strong as it used to be, and secondly because the African Cup has become harder.”
The match against Guinea was conditioned by the second-half sending-off of Gervinho, but Renard was left disappointed with Toure’s lack of influence on proceedings.
“It is up to him to carry the team. He is the captain and he has to lead by example,” Renard said of his star man before the Mali clash. “If he is not able to improve his level it will be difficult for the team.”
– Bullish –
But aware of his own obligation to coax the best out of Toure, Renard changed his system against Mali, starting with three central defenders and with his captain as a deep-lying playmaker.
In the end, the Ivorians dominated much of the game, enjoying 64 percent of the possession.
But those statistics can to a large extent be explained by the fact that Mali scored an early goal and then sat back, and ultimately Toure did not make the difference.
There can be no doubting the credentials of the 46-year-old Renard, who returned to the African game after a spell in charge of French side Sochaux last season.
He got the Ivory Coast job on the basis of his remarkable achievement with Zambia, leading the Chipolopolo to glory at the 2012 Cup of Nations.
Saturday’s draw ensured that he has not lost a match at the tournament since a penalty shoot-out defeat to Nigeria with Zambia in the 2010 quarter-finals.
“For those who always like to criticise, I’d just like to point out that this was my 11th match in a row at the competition without losing. I know what I’m doing,” he declared bullishly on Saturday.
Indeed, in 15 games as a coach at the finals his only defeat over 90 minutes so far came against Cameroon in the 2010 group stage.
Cameroon stand in Renard’s way again on Wednesday, with memories still fresh of their 4-1 win over the Elephants in qualifying in September.
The suspended Cheick Tiote will join Gervinho on the sidelines for the decisive encounter in which Renard will hope his captain really steps forward.