Rustenburg, South Africa: Ivory Coast midfielder Max Gradel reckons coach Sabri Lamouchi has introduced a title-winning mentality to the Africa Cup of Nations favourites.
The Ivorians go head to head with Nigeria on Sunday in the billboard poster clash of the quarter-finals.
It has been well documented how the Ivorian “golden generation”, led by captain Didier Drogba, is facing its last throw of the Nations Cup dice — a case of now or never.
So if the 2013 title is to go back to Abidjan, the Elephants must first overcome a young, inexperienced but up-for-it Nigerian side that booked this last-eight meeting with the Group D winners by filling the runners-up spot in Group C.
Saint Etienne’s Gradel believes Lamouchi has added an ingredient to the squad that was missing 12 months ago when the team coached by Francois Zahoui lost on penalties to Zambia in the final in Libreville.
“The new coach has shown us how to respect each other, that’s important.
“We’re ready to fight for one another, that’s a big difference for this Nations Cup. I hope that will help us to finally win the title,” said the former Leicester City and Leeds United player
Ivory Coast took time to kick into gear in South Africa, labouring to an error-strewn 2-1 opening win over fellow quarter-finalists Togo, turning on the style to see off Tunisia 3-0 in their second game, before a near-reserve side featuring Drogba came back to draw 2-2 with Algeria.
Former Serie A midfielder Lamouchi, in his first coaching job, had the backbone to drop the continent’s most famous footballing son Drogba to the bench for the Tunisia game in a bold tactic that worked a treat.
He has refused to be drawn when pressed on whether Drogba would start against Nigeria.
“Didier has made clear progress, he’s working hard.
“Like the rest of the group, Didier is essential for the rest of the competition. I won’t change anything in the way I pick my team, I’ll try to put the best one forward.”
And he insisted on the importance of his side putting in a blemish-free display at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace.
“We don’t have the right to make mistakes now. If we win this one we continue, if we lose we’re going home.”
With his team dripping with experience and quality, Lamouchi’s men are favourites to see off a Nigerian side that is largely inexperienced at this level, aside from the likes of captain and centre-back Joseph Yobo, at his sixth Nations Cup.
Lamouchi cautioned against over-confidence.
“This team may not have the experience of the great Nigerian sides of the past, but they have young, talented players and we respect them.”
Despite the Ivorians holding the aces in terms of experience, Yobo suggested it would be foolhardy to treat an Ivorian victory as a foregone conclusion.
“On paper the Ivory Coast are favourites, so people might class us as the underdogs, but we know the importance of this game and are very focused.
“It’s not about star names, it’s not about individuals, it’s about going through to the next stage.”
Nigeria made it to the last eight with 1-1 draws against Burkina Faso and champions Zambia and a Victor Moses-inspired 2-0 win over Ethiopia.
A captivating west Africa derby is in store, with the victors earning the right to play either South Africa or Mali in the semi-finals in Durban next Wednesday.
Key match-ups in Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final between Ivory Coast and Nigeria Sunday:
Gervinho (CIV) v Joseph Yobo (NGR)
Arsenal striker Gervinho has had an inspired start to the competition, looking sharp, pacey and dangerous whenever he gets the ball. He scored the winner against Togo and the first in the 3-0 rout of Tunisia. Captain Yobo, the experienced defender at his sixth Nations Cup, is set to play after recovering from an ankle injury and Nigeria need him to blunt the Ivorian frontline.
Yaya Toure (CIV) v Victor Moses (NGR)
An intriguing battle in the middle of the park lies ahead between Manchester City giant Toure, the recently annointed African Footballer of the Year, and Chelsea’s Moses, making his presence felt at his first Nations Cup. It was Moses who bagged the two late goals against Ethiopia that set up this clash.