Defending champions Ivory Coast stutter vs. Togo, Emmanuel Adebayor
OYEM, Gabon -- Three points from a surprising 0-0 draw for the Ivory Coast as they begin their African Nations Cup defence...
1. Ivory Coast begin title defence with a stutter
All in all, Ivory Coast stuttered on a night that did little to suggest they will have a straightforward run to a second successive Africa Cup of Nations title. Unfancied Togo deserved their goalless draw and increased their own chances of progressing from Group B; this result was hardly a disaster for the Elephants, but they only created a handful of chances against well-drilled and often enterprising opponents. Things must improve in the upcoming games with DR Congo and Morocco.
The defending champions might have been fancied to begin quickly but the early pace, on a warm and mellow evening in northern Gabon, was sedentary. An opening for Jonathan Kodjia was snuffed out by Togo right-back Serge Gakpe but it was the underdogs, coached by the wily Africa veteran Claude Le Roy, who went on to have the best of the first-half chances.
Fo-Doh Laba prodded a tentative effort wide from a good position, with Emmanuel Adebayor perhaps better placed, and they came even closer in the 29th minute when Mathieu Dossevi, played through by Ihlas Bebou down the inside-left channel, was denied by an excellent, smothering save from Sylvain Gbohouo. Sadat Ouro-Akoriko had a header deflected over amid a flurry of Togo corners just before the break and when the interval arrived, Le Roy's side couldn't be happier.
When Ivory Coast came up with a genuine piece of quality in the 55th minute, it should have mattered. Serge Aurier's whipped cross from the right was begging for an unmarked Kodjia to convert; instead the striker, perhaps taking his eye off the ball, glanced wide when a goal seemed inevitable.
Salomon Kalou sent a free-kick well over from a promising position as the Elephants finally became a consistent threat. They made the running throughout most of the second half as Togo, appearing to tire, were restricted to counterattacks although the Sparrow Hawks created a decent chance 13 minutes from time when Bebou Ihlas' fine cross was met by Lala, who could only guide it over. Gakpe then chipped onto the roof of the net after good work from Adebayor, before Aurier headed a good late chance wide.
The result was fair and perhaps the only shame was that a game so replete with big names was watched by so few fans. Stade de Oyem only looked around a quarter-full and quite aside from any talk of a boycott from local fans, other factors made it easy to understand why.
Oyem is a small town of 60,000 people, deep in the jungle, that sits 300km from the capital city, Libreville. The Chinese-built stadium, shiny and new, sits 18km away and is surrounded by rubble. Like the new airport terminal at which visiting journalists landed, many on a plane delayed by four and a half hours, the infrastructure around it is not yet finished. It is hard to see what, and who, the ground will serve in future -- a question that mars the matches held here.
2. Zaha shows flashes of international quality
This was not the dream start to major tournament life for Zaha but there were moments that suggested he will be a huge asset to the Elephants as long as he receives the right service. The Crystal Palace winger lasted 69 minutes of his competitive international debut before being replaced although after a quiet first half, he had been behind much of the Ivory Coast's best work in the second.
Zaha started on the right of a front three that featured two other familiar faces to followers of English football. Ex-Chelsea winger Kalou began on the left while Kodjia, of Aston Villa, was preferred through the middle. The three only flickered in spurts during the first half and Zaha was often peripheral. One neat turn won a dangerous free-kick on the edge of the penalty area and then, shortly after the half-hour, an explosive burst down towards the byline resulted in a driven cross that was desperately cleared by Gakpe.
As Ivory Coast livened up after the interval, Zaha collected the ball on the left and jinked inside before shooting narrowly over the crossbar. By now there was evidence of some understanding between Zaha and those around him -- particularly the midfielder Franck Kessie, who has been strongly linked with a move to the Premier League. Twice Zaha cleverly found Kessie on the overlap; twice the move came to nothing but as the game opened up, his involvement had increased markedly.
Midway through the half, an outstanding flick past Togo left-back Djene Ortega opened up Zaha's clearest chance of the match but, perhaps unwisely ignoring teammates square of him, his angled effort was brilliantly blocked by a sliding Gakpe.
He appeared to be in the mood now but that was to be his last significant action as coach Michel Dussuyer chose to bolster his centre-forward options with the introduction of Wilfried Bony. On the evidence of what ensued, perhaps he should have been given longer to break Togo down.
3. Adebayor inspires impressive Togo
The applause with which Adebayor was greeted upon leaving the field two minutes from time said enough. Togo's captain was cheered from the pitch by all sections of the stadium and the enthusiasm was deserved: he had put in a tireless, selfless performance and set the tone for what could be a crucial point for Le Roy's team.
It said much for Adebayor's longstanding importance to Togo -- as well as the lack of resources at the country's disposal -- that he was called upon to lead the line here, but there was nothing especially rusty about his play. Adebayor didn't look like a player who had been forced to train with local clubs in Togo since becoming a free agent last summer and, as so often during his international career, he sought to have an influence beyond that of a simple centre-forward -- dropping deep on numerous occasions to link up with team-mates and add an extra body defensively.
There were few sights of goal for the former Arsenal and Tottenham man, bar a speculative 30-yard volley in the first half, but flashes of quality were evident, including a delightful outside-of-the-boot pass to release Ihlas on the left in the 44th minute.
More than anything else, Adebayor lifts those around him. Togo are short of stardust elsewhere but they have a talisman who will do anything for his national team and who is trusted deeply by his teammates. On this evidence, his influence could be enough to help propel them to the last eight.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.