LIBREVILLE, Gabon February 10 – A narrower than expected first-round victory over Sudan set the trend for the progress of star-studded Ivory Coast to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations final against Zambia at Stade de l’Amitie Sunday.
Captain Didier Drogba nodded the only goal of the Group B game off a Salomon Kalou cross shortly before half-time, with the second-half avalanche never materialising.
Tired of pretty football that won nothing, the Ivorians no longer cared how they won as long as they won and coach Francois Zahoui made no excuses for his pragmatic approach.
“If we win with a header from a corner in the final minute of extra time that is good enough for me. I have a mission which is to lead this team to the final,” stressed the 49-year-old ex-professional who played in Italy and France.
The message was clear to a nation waiting with increased desperation since 1992 for a second Cup of Nations title — the Elephants were not interested in style, just success.
And after five victories on the trot Ivory Coast are in their third final — they lost a 2006 shootout against hosts Egypt — and appear capable of defeating sentimental favourites Zambia.
Victory over Sudan was followed by a 2-0 win against west African neighbours Burkina Faso with an early Kalou goal supplemented by a late own goal from Bakary Kone.
Zahoui, who replaced popular but too expensive Swede Sven Goran Eriksson after a first round exit from the 2010 World Cup, demonstrated his strength in depth against Angola by fielding a ‘B’ team and coasting to a 2-0 win.
Former first choice Emmanuel Eboue and impressive Wilfried Bony netted for a team containing only two regulars, England-based centre-backs Kolo Toure and Souleymane Bamba.
Drogba brushed off having a penalty saved against quarter-final opponents and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea to score in each half before 2011 African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure iced the cake with a superb late goal via a free kick.
Surprise semi-finalists Mali proved a much tougher nut to crack in Libreville and it took a glorious goal from previously misfiring Gervinho on the stroke of half-time to separate the sides.
The dreadlocked Arsenal goal poacher created space down the left flank with a back heel, raced forward with the ball seemingly glued to his boot and gave goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite no chance from close range.
The last time Ivory Coast won the tournament they did not concede a goal in five matches, three of which went to extra time, and the class of 2012 has kept five clean sheets ahead of the showdown with the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets).