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Egypt were not particularly impressive in the group phase and the Ivorians’ array of attacking talent could make the difference.
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It is fair to say the Africa Cup of Nations got off to a cagey start. Nine of the first 12 matches in Cameroon finished 1-0 – and two of the other three were 0-0 draws. In a sense, this was predictable. The managers had very little time to work with their players before the action got under way. Since it is quicker and easier to coach defensive soccer, the first round of games were predictably uneventful.
Ivory Coast were on the right side of a 1-0 scoreline on January 12, as Max Gradel’s early goal earned them all three points against Equatorial Guinea. A 2-2 draw with Sierra Leone followed, before Ivory Coast knocked out the defending champions Algeria with a deserved 3-1 triumph at the Stade de Japoma in Douala, the same venue for this last-16 tie. With six goals to their name, Ivory Coast were outscored only by Cameroon in the group stage.
It is the Elephants’ attacking quality that makes them such a threat in this competition. There are not many teams in Africa who could afford to leave a player of Wilfried Zaha’s ability on the bench for two of their three group games. Gradel and Nicolas Pepe are the players competing with Zaha for the two spots alongside Sebastien Haller, who is enjoying a fantastic season at Ajax with 22 goals in 24 appearances in all competitions. No team managed as many shot on targets as Ivory Coast in the group stage.
There is plenty to admire elsewhere in this Ivory Coast team, not least the midfield trio of Ibrahim Sangare, Jean Seri and Franck Kessie. Patrice Beaumelle’s side were the third-favorites to lift the trophy in the pre-tournament odds, and we have seen nothing yet that questions their status as one of the main contenders.
Egypt were rated as the No.1 side at the Africa Cup of Nations by various sportsbooks, but they have been a little underwhelming so far. Their opening game against Nigeria was one of the heavyweight clashes of the group stage – and it did not have a positive outcome for the Pharaohs.
Egypt bounced back from a 1-0 loss in that fixture to beat both Guinea-Bissau and Sudan by a single goal, but that was not enough to top Group D – and their second-place finish has landed them a tricky last-16 tie against Ivory Coast.
Egypt were never likely to blow the likes of Guinea-Bissau and Sudan away; that is not really their style. They might have the best player at the tournament, Mohamed Salah, in their ranks but Egypt are not the type of team that will go on the front foot and take a proactive approach. They prefer to keep things solid on the back and hope they will nick a goal on the counter-attack. Whether that is enough to go all the way remains to be seen.
“There aren’t any more easy matches in the competitions, so we are just please to go through and believe we can only get stronger,” Egypt defender Ahmed Hegazy said after the hard-fought win against Sudan. Deep down, he must know the team needs to improve in the knockout stage.
Egypt’s strategy will again be centered on a sitting deep in defense and keeping a compact shape without the ball. They will be happy for Ivory Coast to dominate possession; instead of competing for control of the ball, they will sit back and look to open up space into which Salah can counter. The Liverpool superstar has pace in abundance and his clinical finishing in and around the penalty means he might only need one or two chances to have a major impact on the game.
The issue for Egypt is that it is hard to see where the goals will come from if Salah has an off-day or is marked out of the game. Nigeria succeeded in keeping him under wraps at the start of the group stage, and Ivory Coast will be able to use possession as a defensive as well as an offensive tactic: if they dominate the ball, Salah will have fewer opportunities to make an impression.
Ivory Coast’s backline is the team’s weak point. Of the 16 teams that made it into the knockout rounds, the Elephants had the third-worst expected goals against numbers in the group stage, which shows they gave up good chances to their opponents. But Egypt have struggled to produce in the final third up to now, and Ivory Coast’s attacking talent looks like it could bring them victory.
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|Ivory Coast vs Egypt Information|
|Teams||Ivory Coast vs Egypt|
|Location||Stade de Japoma, Douala, Cameroon|
|Time||Wednesday, 26 January 2022, 11.00 AM EST|
|How to watch||beIN SPORTS|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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