Ivory Coast opened their Total Energies Africa Cup of Nations campaign with a narrow 1-0 win over Group E rivals Equatorial Guinea at the Japoma Stadium in Douala on Wednesday night.
The Elephants moved to the top of the group on three points – following yesterday’s 0-0 draw between Sierra Leone and Algeria – with their victory secured by a world-class strike from captain Max Gradel early in proceedings.
Yet Nzalang Nacional will feel that they should have come away with something more than defeat, having put in a display in which they often matched their highly-regarded opponents but failed to capitalise on several good scoring chances.
Ivory Coast got off to a flying start and claimed the lead as early as the fifth minute, with Gradel latching onto a loose ball on the ‘D’ of the penalty area and striking a screamer into the top corner of the net. His shot swerved off the outside of his right foot and gave goalkeeper Manuel Sapunga no chance whatsoever.
The Elephants had a great chance to double their lead on 21 minutes when Franck Kessie’s chip into the middle of the penalty area met the late run of Ibrahim Sangare, but the midfielder was unable to get over the ball and could only head clear of the crossbar, with Sapunga having left his line unguarded.
Equatorial Guinea had a few moments of threat in the first, including a long-range shot from Jose Machin which flashed just wide, and a goal-bound effort from Dorian Hanza which was superbly blocked by Eric Bailly.
Yet it was the Ivorians who controlled the game and regularly cut through the lines of their opponents with some sharp passing, though Sebastien Haller was not as involved as he would have liked.
The first half ended with Ivory Coast still 1-0 up and worthy of their lead, though Nzalang Nacional had shown enough potency in attack to give themselves hope of turning the game around after the interval.
And Equatorial Guinea should have levelled the game five minutes after the restart when Basilio Ndong’s dangerous low ball from the left caused all kinds of strife in the Ivory Coast defence and ended with a shooting chance for Iban Salvador, but the midfielder shot high and wide with the goal at his mercy.
On 63 minutes, following an Ivory Coast foray which could have seen them go 2-0 up, Nzalang Nacional sprung away on a counter attack which had Nsue break the offside trap and run onto a long ball, but he failed to get the better of ‘keeper Sangare, who dived low to his left to make a fine save.
Cognisant of his team going stale through the second half, Elephants coach Patrice Beaumelle introduced the trio of Nicolas Pepe, Serey Die and Wilfried Zaha in an effort to spark the attack back to life.
Pepe had two great chances to kill the game off in the 81st minute, first blazing wildly off target after a storming run down the left from Ghislain Koman, before another chance seconds later in which his shot toward the bottom corner was tipped away by Sapunga.
Zaha also came close to adding to the score line in injury time, after a skillful solo effort which ended with a low shot across the face of goal, but ultimately the Elephants had to settle for a narrow but just about deserved 1-0 victory.
The teams will return to Group E action on Sunday 16 January, with Equatorial Guinea taking on Algeria and Ivory Coast facing fellow West Africans Sierra Leone.
Equatorial Guinea 0
Ivory Coast (1) 1 (Gradel 5’)
Eq. Guinea:Sapunga, Akapo (Meseguer 87’), Obiang, Coco, Ndong, Buyla, Machin, Ganet, Salvador (Siafa 82’), Hanza (Nlavo 64’), Nsue
Ivory Coast: B. Sangare, Maiga, Deli, Bailly, Konan, Seri, Kessie (Die 71’), I. Sangare, Cornet (Zaha 71’), Gradel (Pepe 71’), Haller (Kouame 82’)