Ivory Coast start quest for elusive second title
Star-studded Ivory Coast will be expected to beat Sudan Sunday here to set the tone in their quest for a second Africa Cup of Nations.
"We have always been rated tournament favourites but failed to deliver. But now is the time to go all the way," said Arsenal forward Gervinho.
"We have all told ourselves that it is now or never for us.
"We have everything going for us, quality and the motivation. We only need to be fully concentrated for this competition because Ivorians need nothing but the trophy."
The Ivorians first and only Nations Cup triumph was achieved in 1992, but since 2006 they have been ranked among the teams to go all the way.
This followed the emergence of a 'Golden Generation' led by the inspirational skipper and Chelsea star striker Didier Drogba.
The Elephants were pipped 1-0 in the 2006 final by hosts Egypt, who also stopped them a lot more convincingly by the semi-finals at the following competition in Ghana two years later.
At the 2010 edition in Angola, Algeria upset the Ivory Coast 3-2 in the quarter-finals after extra time to again put paid to another dream.
In the absence of African football heavyweights like seven-time winners Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria, there could not be a better opportunity for the Ivorians to go all the way again.
For ageing stars like Drogba (33 years), goalkeeper Boubacar Barry (32), Didier Zokora (31) and Kolo Toure (31), this could well be their final chance to crown their international careers with winners' medals at this tournament.
Player-for-player, the Elephants are again the team to beat and this has been further boosted by the form of Russia-based Seydou Doumbia and the emergence of striker Wilfried Bony, who features for Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem.
They looked a class act when they defeated 2004 winners Tunisia 2-0 in Dubai, before they followed that up with 1-0 win over Libya with Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou scoring again to underline his form leading into the tournament.
However, the team's Achilles heel remains in defence, where many still question the reliability of Lokeren goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, while the country's top defenders have struggled at their various European clubs.
Fullback Arthur Boka has struggled to tie down a first-team place at German club VfB Stuttgart, Souleymane Bamba features in the English lower league and Emmanuel Eboue is now in Turkey after he fell out of favour at Arsenal.
Sunday's opponents Sudan are the only team in the entire tournament whose full squad are drawn from the domestic league with players from the dominant clubs Al Hilal and Al Merriekh.
They were proud winners of this competition in 1970, but ever since they have struggled to return to top reckoning.
They lost all three group games and failed to score even a goal at their last Nations Cup appearance in Ghana four years ago.
"This is a chance for Sudan to do well again," declared Mohamed Abdallah 'Mazda', who is back in charge after Englishman Stephen Constantine failed to lift the team.
"We are on paper not one of the favourites, but in reality football is played on the pitch.
"The proof of this fact is that five of Africa's top teams, Egypt, Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa, were eliminated in the qualifiers and will not be here."
Sudan have gained in confidence and showed remarkable improvements after they were trounced 3-0 by Tunisia in a warm-up game. They lost 1-0 to Senegal in Dakar in another test game before they held co-hosts Gabon to a 0-0 draw.
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