Côte d'Ivoire became the first team to reach the CAF Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals with a 3-1 triumph over severely depleted Ghana in Group B on Friday.
It was a polished performance by the Elephants, who were reduced to 10 men on 56 minutes when Arsenal defender Emmanuel Eboue was red-carded for a tackle from behind on Opoku Agyemang with his team one goal ahead. Victory lifted the title favourites to four points from two matches and they will be joined in the knockout phase by Burkina Faso or Ghana, who clash Tuesday in the final section fixture.
Togo, the other country drawn in the group, withdrew before the tournament kicked off last Sunday after the bus convoy carrying them into Angola was attacked in this restive northern Angolan enclave.
Lille forward Kouassi 'Gervinho' Yao put the Ivorians ahead midway through the first half at the new, 20,000-seat Chiazi Stadium, Siaka Tiene scored direct from a free-kick after 67 minutes and Chelsea striker Didier Drogba completed the victory in the final minute. Ghana got a stoppage-time consolation goal via an Asamoah Gyan penalty after he had been fouled by Souleman Bamba.
"We're all relieved," said Drogba. "We were consistent from the start. Even if we had difficulties we succeeded in remaining solid and performing the counter attacks."
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic made one change to the Ivorian team that failed to sparkle when held to a goalless draw by Burkina Faso last Monday, with Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou replacing Bakary Kone.
Ghana kicked off without eight first-choice players in defenders John Pantsil and John Mensah, midfielders Anthony Annan, Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien, Laryea Kingson and Sulley Muntari and striker Asamoah Gyan. The absence of so many regulars meant Wigan goalkeeper and fourth-choice captain Richard Kingson, a brother of Laryea, wore the armband until Essien came on for the second half with Gyan.
Midfielder Didier Zokora stung the fingers of Kingson with a fierce drive that was parried for a corner and captain Drogba blazed a free-kick over during the early exchanges.
Côte d'Ivoire took the lead with a master-class in counter-attacking as a sliding tackle just outside their penalty area deprived Ghana of possession and set in motion one of the slickest goals so far seen in the tournament. The ball was stroked into the path of Barcelona man Yaya Toure and his superb pass sprang the offside trap for Kalou, who crossed for Gervinho to tap the ball into an unguarded net.
Ghana made little impact in attack until six minutes before half-time when Ivorian goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, often considered the weak link in the team, dived to his left and superbly parried a Kwadwo Asamoah drive. The presence of Essien, playing for the first time since early December when injured in a UEFA Champions League clash, offered hope to the four-time champions and the dismissal of Eboue threatened to tilt the balance.
Mathew Amoah was unlucky not to equalise soon after on a pitch that was cutting up alarmingly as his volley struck the base of a post and flew wide with Barry helpless. But midway through the half the Ivorians doubled their lead against the run of play as Tiene curled a left-footed free-kick from wide on the right over Kingson and into the roof of the net.
Playing a man short appeared to be having no effect on the Ivorians as they continued to attack and Drogba headed in a left-wing cross on 90 minutes to complete a handsome success.