MARK O'HAIRE'S (@MarkOHaire) backed winners in three of the first four games at the 2017 African Cup of Nations. Next on his hit-list is Group C's encounter between Ivory Coast and Togo.
Ivory Coast v Togo | Monday 16:00 | Eurosport
Construction workers were still on site at the new stadium in Oyem at the weekend, putting the final touches to a venue that will host defending African Cup of Nations champions Ivory Coast and Group C outsiders Togo on Monday.
Unsurprisingly, Ivory Coast arrive at the continent’s premier international tournament as favourites, again. And the Elephants pitch up on Monday as red-hot 1/2 (Coral) jollies to get their campaign off to a winning start.
But I’m not at all interested in siding with Michel Dussuyer’s troops at such short quotes. Sure, Ivory Coast were ranked second in Africa and 34th in the world by FIFA this month, but they’ve been far from convincing since lifting the 2015 crown.
Elephants make little appeal
The Toure brothers are no longer about, penalty hero Boubacar Barry hung up his boots, Didier Drogba had already gone and Dider Zokora’s also no more. Head coach Herve Renard also walked away with mission complete and they arrive in Gabon without injured Gervinho to fly down the flanks.
Wilfried Zaha is expected to make his competitive debut in Gervinho’s place and in fairness, the Crystal Palace winger has made a very good early impression by scoring and assisting a goal from his two warm-up appearances.
But one win and three qualifying draws in a group alongside Sudan and Sierra Leone was far from impressive. The Elephants lacked the gusto required to really pummel poor opposition and it’s not fair to say that performances haven’t consistently convinced since they lifted the AFCON title.
At their best at the back
Ivory Coast’s best weapon in 2017 is their defensive quality. Lamine Kone, Wilfried Kanon, Eric Bailly and Serge Aurier make-up three of their four key defenders from the 2015 triumph and with Franck Kessie in the heart of midfield alongside Serey Die and Jean-Michael Seri, there’s plenty of engine, bite and box-to-box ability.
Despite the negativity, the Elephants are unbeaten since the start of AFCON 2015 and haven’t been beaten by African opposition since October 2014. But it would be wrong to suggest it’s all sunshine and brightness and I’m prepared to find ways to oppose their prohibitive pricing here.
The pre-match favourites are unbeaten in AFCON openers since 1996 (W4-D5-L0 but are renowned slow starters. What’s more, Ivory Coast have only won two of their last nine competitive games by more than a one-goal margin.
Asian Handicap angle
Togo have been chalked up as 8/11 (188BET) shots with a +1.25 start on the Asian Handicap line and would see us make money should the Sparrow Hawks stay within one-goal of their more illustrious opposition.
This selection sees half our stake returned as a push if Ivory Coast win by one-goal with the second half paying-out as a winner. If the game ends in a draw or a surprise Togo victory, we’ll pocket a full pay-out – the only way in which we won’t make money is if Ivory Coast triumph by two or more goals.
The underdogs are skippered by striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who has not had club since leaving Crystal Palace in June and hasn’t scored a goal since February. But the Togolese are lead by an AFCON legend in Claude LeRoy.
LeRoy is making a record-extending ninth finals appearance and only once before has his teams’ failed to progress to the quarter-finals. And the French coach told reporters on Sunday, he expected former African Footballer of the Year Adebayor to make a major impact.
Following this selection does require a fair bit of faith. Togo’s best AFCON result was reaching the quarter-finals in 2013, they’re ranked 23rd in Africa and have only once reached the knockout stages in eight previous attempts.
The Sparrow Hawks have lost six of their last eight AFCON finals games (W1-D1-L6) and never triumphed in their tournament opener (W0-D3-L4). Oh… they’ve also failed to beat the Ivory Coast in 30 years and made hard work of qualification too.
But their conservative nature could work to their advantage in this group opener. Togo are likely to set-up in a 4-5-1 formation to frustrate the Elephants but they do boast pace and intent on the break with Serge Gakpe and Floyd Ayite capable of supporting Adebayor’s hold-up play.
The Sparrow Hawks have Alaixys Romao biting about in midfield and you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be supremely organised under LeRoy’s watch. Chuck in their set-piece threat and a goal isn’t beyond their wildest dreams here, even if they do go down to a narrow defeat.
With that in mind, I'm also going to have a wee nibble on the 9/4 (Bet365) available on Ivory Coast winning by exactly one-goal. A careful staking plan should ensure we're in the green unless the Elephants end up running riot.