There will be many interesting mini-battles when Cote d’Ivoire take on the United States for a place in the quarter-finals on Monday. But perhaps the most intriguing will be whether the Africans’ pacy and skilful attack can break down the stubborn and impressive young American defence when they go head-to-head in Dubai. FIFA.com spoke to some of the players likely to be involved in the hot spots.
Chad Marshall has already experienced the bitter taste of defeat in a FIFA world finals - three times, in fact, at the U-17 championship in Trinidad & Tobago. Two years on, the 19-year old, now standing at 1.91m, has been one of the main reasons for the United States’ success in capturing top spot in a potentially hazardous-looking Group F.
“Coming back after beating Paraguay was key,” he reflects on the opening win, followed up by the final match make-or-break victory over Korea Republic. “Winning our group was huge, no U.S. team has ever done that at a world finals.”
Playing alongside Marshall in the American backline is Ryan Cochrane – another player to have impressed observers.
“It was just crazy going into the last game with everyone even,” he says of the situation after two games in the group with each team having recorded a win and a loss. “I think we didn’t hold back that game and showed we are true competitors.”
The two players who turn out for west coast University teams, Marshall (Stanford) and Cochrane (Santa Clara), agree on the secret of their success.
“The main thing is we know what we are capable of; we don’t try and play above what we can do,” states Marshall.
“I’m a defender so my job is not to take on players but to keep the ball from going in the net,” adds Cochrane. “Thomas (Rongen) has embedded in us that everyone should know their role.”
It may not quite be total football from the Dutch coach but it seems to be working with the United States’ team.
On Monday, they face their first knockout obstacle – Africa’s Cote d’Ivoire.
“They are very athletic and good on one-on-ones,” believes Cochrane. “They don’t appear to have any weaknesses like some other sides, so we will have to play as a team.”
“We have watched them play on video, and the 14 (Andre Saki) looks to be a danger. He is quick and very skilful,” continues Marshall appreciatively.
At 1.64m and 62 kilos, Saki is not exactly an intimidating figure. But the nippy winger, who had an outstanding match against the tough Republic of Ireland, believes his size works in his favour.
“I’m a small player but I don’t think of it as a disadvantage,” he smiles. “In fact, sometimes it helps. I believe technical aptitude is more important, along with speed.”
Saki, who most identifies with Welsh winger Ryan Giggs, says it is an “honour” to be considered a danger man by his opponents before selecting potential American menaces.
“Their number seven (Ed Johnson) is dangerous, we will have to close him down,” he states, “We already know many things about Adu and we will organise ourselves to stop him.”
Antonin Koutouan is a man on a mission. The striker, considered Cote d’Ivoire’s most potent weapon before the finals began, has so far failed to get on the scoresheet in the Emirates.
“I’m not totally satisfied with my performances,” the striker says honestly. “Tomorrow (Monday) is a chance for me to turn things around. I cannot promise I will score, but I promise I will do all I can to try.”
Koutouan should get plenty of support in his efforts. The African may be on loan to Lorient in France’s second division but he is contracted to Abu Dhabi’s Al Wahda club.
“I stayed here for six months,” he says. “I had a good relationship with the people, it is like coming back home for me.”
The well balanced tie could hinge less on where Koutouan put his slippers, than on whether he can find his shooting boots.