Wilfried Zaha came off the bench to inspire Ivory Coast past Zambia as the Elephants recorded a 3-1 win in their 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier at the Stade de Yamoussoukro on Friday.
With Ivory Coast’s new coach Jean-Louis Gasset taking to the dugout for the first time while Croatian Aljosa Asanovic also began his spell as Zambia’s tactician, both sides unleashed their star players.
The Ivorians started with Wolverhampton Wanderers defender Willy Boly partnering Simon Deli of Adana Demirspor, Serge Aurier of Villarreal at right-back while PSV Eindhoven’s Ibrahim Sangare marshalling the midfield.
Ajax and Eredivisie top scorer Sebastien Haller led the line alongside Anderlecht’s Cristian Kouame and with Crystal Palace winger Zaha on the bench, Sivasspor’s Max Gradel was the one left to torment the Zambian defence from wide.
Zambia had their UK-based trio of Enock Mwepu (Brighton and Hove Albion), Patson Daka (Leicester City) and Fashion Sakala of Rangers leading the attack as they sought to silence the 2023 tournament hosts in their own backyard.
After a goalless first half, the hosts failed to trouble the Zambian defence before the Chipolopolo had a five-minute spell when they tested Badra Ali Sangare in the Ivory Coast goal, first through Rodrick Kabwe, then Sakala and Daka.
Gasset responded by making a double substitution, bringing on Zaha for Jeremie Boga while Haller came off for Trabzonspor forward Jean Evrard Kouassi which paid immediate dividends.
Just seconds later, Zaha dazzled on the left wing before unleashing a low shot which was blocked out for a corner that yielded the Elephant’s opening goal in the 67th minute. Zaha took the corner short before Kouassi’s header found an unmarked Aurier at the back post and the former Tottenham Hotspur man made no mistakes.
Ten minutes later, the hosts were celebrating a second goal when Anderlecht forward Cristian Kouame rose highest to head home from a corner to calm the nerves of the home supporters.
There was still time for a third goal through Ibrahim Sangare although a lack of concentration allowed the Chipolopolo to score a consolation via Daka in added time.
Victory sees Ivory Cost top Group H with three points, same as Comoros who have an inferior goal difference following their 2-0 victory over Lesotho at the Stade Omnisports de Malouzini in Moroni in Friday’s early kickoff.
The Coelecanths made light work of the Southern Africans, Guingamp midfielder Youssouf M'Changama opening the scoring in the 59th minute before defender Benjaloud Youssouf made it 2-0 for the island nation.
The Ivorians, who have already qualified by virtue of being hosts, are taking part in the qualifiers to gain competition experience and next visit Lesotho on June 9, three days after Zambia host Comoros in Lusaka.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso are top of Group B with three points after second-half goals from Hassane Bande and Dango Ouattara gave them a 2-0 victory over Cape Verde while Togo and Eswatini have a point each following their dramatic 2-2 draw at Stade de Kegue in Lome.
Togo had bossed the game for 80 minutes after Meme Placca gave them a 20th minute lead with a sublime free-kick.
However, Eswatini made a rare foray forward and earned instant rewards as Sabelo Ndzinisa met Philani Mkhontfo’s cross to head home the equaliser six minutes from time.
Togo responded two minutes later when Al Ain forward Kodjo Laba jumped highest to meet Floyd Ayite’s lofted ball to regain their advantage but the drama was not over as Eswatini caught their opponents on the break with Siboniso Ngwenya scoring the equaliser deep into added time.
Burkina Faso’s next match is a visit to Eswatini on June 7 while Cape Verde host Togo on the same day.