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Could Nicolas Pepe fire the Cote d’Ivoire to Afcon glory?

02:11 SAST 2019/03/25
Nicolas Pepe and Serge Aurier of the Cote d'Ivoire
The Elephants were emphatic winners over Rwanda this weekend, and could be genuine contenders in Egypt
One of the results of the final Africa Cup of Nations qualifying weekend that went under the radar was the Ivory Coast’s 3-0 thumping of Rwanda in Abidjan.

Amidst the many subplots of a dramatic few days of football across the continent, this convincing win was a statement of intent from the Elephants.

Indeed, while Africa were focusing on Burundi’s remarkable qualification at the expense of Gabon, Tanzania ending their near-four-decade wait for an Afcon berth, or South Africa and Cameroon winning straight shoot-outs to progress, the Ivorians secured a result that suggests they could be contenders in Egypt later this year.

Nicolas Pepe is yet to truly make his mark on this Ivorian team; he was an unused member of Michel Dussuyer’s squad at the 2017 Afcon in Gabon, and had never scored a competitive goal for the national side before this weekend.

His meteoric rise at LOSC Lille, where he was influential in helping Les Dogues beat the drop last year, and has been one of Ligue 1’s star men this term, hadn’t before coincided with notable successes for the Elephants.

Indeed, he didn’t get onto the pitch during their failed attempt to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and didn’t find the net in his first seven outings for the West Africans.

Remarkably, despite amassing 30 goals and 12 assists in the French top flight since the start of the 2017-18 season, the versatile attacker had only been used in three competitive games for the Ivorians before the Rwanda match.

Yet this weekend represented his coming of age with the Elephants, as he was influential in an otherwise stodgy showing and lifted the Ivorians to a convincing win.

The attacker opened the scoring in the seventh minute, and represented a constant threat for Rwandan defenders who were unable to deal with his searing pace and intelligent movement.

Further goals followed—for Eric Bailly and Maxwel Cornet—but Pepe was the architect of the Elephants’ victory, and particularly his work off the ball should make him a major threat for the continent’s defences this summer.

Albeit against limited opponents, it was the kind of showing that underpins why Bayern Munich are reportedly primed to offer 80 million Euros to snare the attacker ahead of other interested parties such as Arsenal and Barcelona.

The Ivorians already had one of Africa’s most fearsome attacking stables before Pepe’s rise in prominence, and yet his quality could set them up for a tournament to remember this summer.

And they need it, following several unhappy years under the tenures of Dussuyer and, infamously, Marc Wilmots.

That duo wholly failed to manage any kind of consolidation following Herve Renard’s Nations Cup success with the Elephants in 2015, and they fell at the first hurdle during their title defence two years later.

They followed that up with a muddled qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup, and although they ultimately missed out on the final day—with a 2-0 home defeat by Renard’s Morocco—the difference between the two sides was stark.

Tellingly, of the 20 teams in the group stage, Cape Verde and Congo-Brazzaville were the only others who lost two of their three home games, with a listless Ivorian side defeated 2-1 at home by Gabon in September 2017.

There was always going to be a need for transition away from Renard’s side, as the dying embers of the Golden Generation slipped away, but the Elephants’ wealth of talent should have at least made for smoother progress after the highs of 2015.

There’s a lot to be excited about, with the Ivorians finally beginning to look like a balanced side who could make an impact in Egypt.

Admittedly, several key players—the likes of Serge Aurier, Eric Bailly and Jean Seri—have been enduring testing seasons at club level, but coach Ibrahim Kamara has options across the park.

Even considering the failed attempts to recruit Tiemoue Bakayoko and Joris Gnagnon, the West Africans can expect both Gervinho and Wilfried Zaha to return in time for the Nations Cup.

Cheick Doukoure of Levante, laid out with a long-term injury, won’t return, although Ghislain Konan and Adama Traore can still be added to the group.

Even without Gervinho and Zaha, Kamara was able to field Max Gradel alongside Pepe in support of Jonathan Kodjia, who has at least returned to action in the Championship this season after his injury nightmare last term.

Cornet is an accomplished option off the bench, even if his options will be limited by Zaha and Gervinho, while the likes of Roger Assale and Yacou Meite can be called upon.

The lack of an outstanding striker to replace Didier Drogba, despite the claims of Lacina Traore, Seydou Doumbia, Wilfried Bony and Kodjia, could finally be answered by Pepe.

Considering the wealth of wide options available to Kamara, and Kodjia’s goalscoring struggles with Aston Villa, he could opt to use the in-form goal machine as a leading man, while employing a trio of Gradel, Gervinho and Zaha in support.

Defensively, Bailly and Wilfried Kanon have a strong relationship which dates back to the 2015 tournament, while Aurier—his Tottenham Hotspur troubles aside—can still be the finest African full-back in the game on his day.

In midfield, Franck Kessie, Jean Philippe Gbamin, Ismael Diomande and Ibrahim Sangare of Toulouse, who was called-up to the U-23 team during this international break, offer enough muscle and presence to match any of the other big African nations.

Critically, in Seri, they also have a passmaster, who can help the Elephants control games, dictate the tempo, and feed those ahead of him.

The 2015 tournament passed the Fulham man by, but he could be key in Egypt as the Ivorians, surely spearheaded by in-form Pepe, look to return to the pinnacle of the continent.