After going unbeaten through the second round of qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Côte d'Ivoire will kick off the final group stage on 29 March with the wind very much in their sails. The draw was comparatively kind to them and kept them apart from their main continental rivals, but Vahid Halilhodzic's men know that the will have to be on their guard against every opponent. FIFA.com takes a closer look at the group favourites.
"The only team I fear is ourselves. We'll have to keep focussed and respect our opponents because everyone will be looking to knock us off our perch. Guinea and Burkina Faso border on our country so those will be typically tough local derbies, and we'll have to make sure that they don't walk all over us." Those were the words of Boubacar Barry Copa, first choice keeper for a team that "doesn't always play like one", as Sevilla midfielder and Elephants' international Romaric so aptly put in to FIFA.com last October. "Individual skills aren't always enough in football, and when it comes to the big tournaments, collective experience is what makes the difference - something that takes time to build up," Barry Copa concluded.
This need for team spirit in a squad that on paper is one of the most talented the continent has ever seen is precisely why Vahid Halilhodzic was named as coach. He is the man tasked with securing the side's place in history, a feat he knows can only be achieved by winning a title. "People see us as the best team in the continent, so now it's up to us to prove it on a consistent basis," the coach said after two solid results in their warm-up matches against Israel at home (2-2) and Turkey away (1-1).
Proactive rather than reactive
"I wanted to see how my team would play away from home in what you could term a hostile environment, and I was satisfied with the way they reacted," said the Bosnian coach, who is known as a strict disciplinarian. "We fell behind twice and both times we pulled ourselves back into the match."
"Now we're being proactive rather than reactive," confirmed Barry Copa. "The coach brought about a lot of changes, particularly in terms of our tactical preparation. He found the right words to express this and we took it all to heart. The only star in the team is the orange jersey that we wear, and we're on the right track now. Our hard work is paying off and we're ready to kick on and move up a level."
The next real test for the Elephants will be at home to Malawi. "It definitely won't be a walk in the park, I can tell you that," said former Lille coach Halilhodzic to FIFA.com. "A lot of people think that Malawi are the minnows in our group, but I'm having none of that. They're an unknown quantity which means that they could also be the surprise package, and that's what I'll be telling my men to watch out for." 'Coach Vahid' as he was known in France will be getting his squad together a week before the match, just as he did last June before two difficult back-to-back away fixtures.
"Playing away from home twice in a row against a couple of tough customers and at this time of year will be no easy task. A lot of leagues are coming to an end at the moment and I have no idea how fresh my players will be physically. Don't forget I still haven't been able to send out my first choice XI in any of the qualifiers," the coach pointed out.
Getting off to a better start
Since taking over from Gerard Gili, Halilhodzic feels that he has not had enough time with the squad to address certain concerns, most notably the poor starts they invariably get off to in each match. "We always struggle to begin with, which is psychological - it has nothing to do with technique or tactics. They are making progress but I really wish I had more time to work with them on that." It is a sentiment echoed by Barry Copa, who added, "We still make mistakes and we have to keep on working."
Will the return of Didier Drogba give the team the encouragement they need? "We're all delighted that Didier is back with us, and though he isn't yet fully recovered from his injury, he was looking good in the last two friendlies we played," said Halilhodzic. "He's working hard and should be back to his best pretty soon. He sets an example and he is an excellent captain. He's also someone I know I can count on."
"The 2006 World Cup was incredible, but if we get to South Africa, we'll have no excuses this time. We can't be satisfied with just getting there, we need to show that we've come of age," insisted Barry Copa. "But no-one is looking ahead to 2010 yet, I can assure you of that. We're keeping our feet very much on the ground."