The Ivory Coast are in the middle of a year to forget, and their draw against Mali in Bamako on Friday suggests that things are set to get worse before they get better.
At the halfway stage of the World Cup qualifying campaign, the Elephants sat two points clear of Morocco at the top of Group C, with two home games and an away game against the Eagles—recently smashed 6-0 by Herve Renard’s side—to play.
Marc Wilmots had masterminded a 3-0 victory away at Gabon in one of the finest displays of any African side—perhaps third behind only Uganda and Nigeria—to help banish some of the miserable memories that had accompanied the early portion of 2017.
However, after Friday’s stalemate, when the Elephants’ best (and almost only) chance came in the 85th minute, they are staring into the abyss…and the prospect of missing their first World Cup since making their tournament debut in 2006.
In the space of 180 minutes, the Ivorians have gone from pole position to outsiders in the group—although it’s worth pointing out that a victory at home against Morocco in their final game would almost certainly secure progression.
First came the shock 2-1 defeat by Gabon at home in Bouake in matchday four, as the Panthers ended a whopping 22-month wait for a competitive victory, although the blow of that defeat was somewhat softened by Morocco’s inability to beat Mali in their third match.
However, there’s no hiding from the fact that Friday’s stalemate represents a significant blow to the Ivorians’ World Cup hopes.
They remain in top spot, but only just, and a victory for former coach Herve Renard and Morocco over Gabon in Casablanca on Saturday would see the Atlas Lions move into pole position ahead of the final day.
The Ivory Coast’s failure to win in Bamako will also represent a boost to Gabon, who welcome back Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back into the side and now, mathematically, have their fate back in their own hands.
Partly through choice and partly through circumstances beyond his control, Wilmots sent out an unfamiliar Ivorian side for Friday’s fixture.
Only five of the team defeated by Gabon remained, with five of the starting XI—Gervinho, Max Gradel, Seydou Doumbia, Adama Traore and Jean Seri—not even in the matchday squad due to injury.
The loss of this quintet—for their vibrancy (Traore), their experience (Gervinho and Gradel), and their momentum (Doumbia)—cannot be underestimated, while Wilfried Zaha is another significant absentee.
In particular, shorn of Seri, the Elephants lacked the kind of creative, measured midfield option who could put his foot on the ball and dictate the tempo for the West Africans.
In their place, Wilmots introduced two of his new recruits—Maxwel Cornet and Jean-Philippe Gbamin—with the duo having only started one competitive fixture—the 3-2 defeat by Guinea—before Friday.
With Wilfried Bony also missing, Jonathan Kodjia stood unopposed as the leading man, and having never before played alongside Cornet or Roger Assale (handed his first start since January 2015), Kodjia’s struggles to play cohesively alongside his teammates can be understood.
Ghislain Konan of Vitoria Guimaraes was introduced for Traore at left-back.
The fact that Wilmots turned to a 21-year-old debutant for such a major fixture ahead of Lamine Kone, for example, was a risky strategy, although in truth, the defender made an accomplished international bow.
Serey Die replaced Seri in midfield, and while no one can question the FC Basel man’s commitment and passion, he lacked his compatriot’s artistry, vision, or technical prowess, and the Ivorians wholly struggled to build coherent attacking moves.
Wilmots claimed before the match that he had the players in his squad to compensate for the absentees, but in truth, there’s hardly a player in Africa today who could step into Seri’s shoes and run a midfield.
Certainly, injuries hurt the Elephants on the day as their annus horribilis continues, but unless he can get one over on Renard, one of his predecessors, in Bouake next month, history will not look kindly on Wilmots’ reign.