Crunch time for Les Elephants

The time has come for Cote d'Ivoire to deliver at the Africa Cup of Nations.

    Cote d'Ivoire coach Vahid Halilhodzic, players Didier Zokora, left, and Salomon Kalou, right, chat to media ahead of their quarter-final at the Chiazi stadium in Cabinda [AFP]

    It is the business end in the Africa Cup of Nations as Cote d'Ivoire's talented squad face Algeria in a quarter-final clash at Cabinda's Chazi Stadium this weekend.

    On a 23-match unbeaten run, Cote d'Ivoire's golden generation of players, including Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure booked their spot in the last eight with a convincing 3-1 win over Ghana more than one week ago.

    But coach Vahid Halilhodzic has concerns that his team's lack of pre-match practice could harm their bid to lift their first continental title since 1992, not to mention fears a bad result could mean the end of his reign in charge.

    Match practice

    After Togo's withdrawal from the competition, the three teams left in Group B had just two matches to play. Halilhodzic unsuccessfully tried to organise a friendly game with a local team to keep his players active to make up for missing a match against Togo.

    "So many days without playing a competitive match was not good, so I've adapted my training methods to this new situation,'' said Halilhodzic.

    "I put a lot of intensity in my training sessions and workload was heavy.''

    "We came here to win the title and we have three matches to play to achieve this,'' Halilhodzic said.

    "This generation will be playing for high stakes in the coming week. We lose all or we win all. It's money time."

    As if a quarter-final was not enough pressure for the Bosnian coach, there has been some speculation that if Cote d'Ivoire lose to Algeria, his job would be gone, despite the former Lille and Paris Saint-Germain coach securing qualification for the World Cup in June.

    "In Africa, you lose a game and you're fired,'' he said.

    Slow start

    Halilhodzic, who took over after German coach Uli Stielike was fired following a fourth-place finish at the African Cup two years ago, has turned the team into a well-drilled side that is full of quality.

    With an average age of about 28, Les Elephants, who got off to a sluggish start with a goalless draw against Burkina Faso, found their form with their defeat of Ghana but Algeria may prove a tougher nut to crack.

    Algeria qualified for the World Cup with a playoff win against twice African champions Egypt in November, a feat that made quite an impression on Halilhodzic.

    Although Algeria slumped to a 3-0 defeat to Malawi in their Cup opener, the Bosnian knows his team face a tricky test.

    "Algeria knocked out Egypt (in the World Cup), that's a big reference," he said.

    "They have a very compact midfield and a good defence."

    Should Cote d'Ivoire win they face the possibility of a repeat of the 2008 semi-final against Egypt, who will be the hot favourites against Cameroon in Benguela on Monday.

    "We are well organised and we work really hard,'' Chelsea midfielder Salomon Kalou said.

    "We know that this match against Algeria will be difficult, but we have better players. If we stay focused, it won't be a problem.''

    Algeria suffered a shock 3-0 loss against Malawi in their opener [AFP]
    Not convincing

    Cote d'Ivoire will be at full strength, only missing suspended Arsenal defender Emmanuel Eboue.

    Algeria have failed to impress so far.

    "I know that my team is still lacking depth,'' Algeria coach Rabah Saadane said.

    "We have to work a lot to reach a satisfying level.''

    After scoring only one goal in the group phase, Algeria are likely to play without several key players, including goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi, Lazio midfielder Mourad Meghni and veteran striker Rafik Saifi who are all doubtful with injuries.

    "But we won against a Mali team that is star-studded,'' Saadane said.

    "I think we can do the same against Cote d'Ivoire. We have to believe in our
    collective strength.''

    Pre-tournament favourites Cameroon are also likely to face a stiff challenge against defending champions Egypt while hosts Angola plays Ghana. Surprise package Zambia faces Nigeria.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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