Libreville (AFP) – Ivory Coast want Crystal Palace flier Wilfried Zaha to replace injured Gervinho as they try to become only the fourth country to successfully defend the Africa Cup of Nations title.
Egypt have achieved the feat three times in the 60-year-old African football showcase and Ghana and Cameroon once each.
But two of those successful defences came when the competition was in its infancy with much smaller fields than the 16 teams who will challenge for glory in Gabon from Saturday.
After the Ivorian Elephants achieved the first of their two Cup of Nations triumphs 25 years ago, they finished third when defending the title after falling to Nigeria in the semi-finals.
Abidjan-born Zaha was brought up in England and made two friendly appearances for his adopted country, but never featured in a competitive game.
Ivory Coast sent France-born coach Michel Dussuyer and several national football federation officials to London, and they successfully persuaded him to change his international allegiance.
“I had ample time to analyse my situation and take into account the solicitations of the Ivorian Football Federation,” said Zaha.
“Now I want to play with the Ivory Coast, primarily because I am proud to represent my country.
“The Ivorian selection includes quality players and has always been a reservoir of talent.”
A long-term injury to former Arsenal and Roma attacker Gervinho makes the acquisition of Zaha timely for the Ivorians as they prepare for a difficult African title defence.
– Renard reunion –
“The absence of Gervinho weighs heavily on us,” admitted former Guinea and Benin coach Dussuyer in Abu Dhabi, where his squad are preparing for the 22-day Cup of Nations.
“However, the coaches and players have had some time to accept the fact that he will not be with us in Gabon.
“The addition of Zaha is, therefore, a wonderful boost. His style is similar to that of Gervinho and we hope he can trouble opposing defences just as much.”
Ivory Coast are in Group C with Togo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Morocco, whose coach, Herve Renard, guided the Ivorians to the African title in Equatorial Guinea two years ago.
The Congolese and Moroccans are rated potential champions while Togo are probably the most feared outsiders, largely because they are coached by Claude le Roy.
The veteran French tactician has been to eight Cup of Nations tournaments with Cameroon, Senegal, DR Congo, Ghana and Congo Brazzaville, and reached the knockout stage seven times.
Tradition does offer the Ivorians comfort, though, with only one loss in 11 previous Africa Cup matches against their mini-league rivals in Gabon.
They have won twice and drawn twice against Togo, won twice and drawn once against Morocco and won twice, drawn once and lost once against DR Congo.
Manchester United centre-back Eric Bailly and Paris Saint-Germain right-back Serge Aurier are among the likely starters in the opening match against Togo in northern town Oyem.
Both played in the 2015 final, won 9-8 on penalties after Ghana established an early two-goal advantage in the post-match shootout.
Veteran Switzerland-based midfielder Serey Die was also part of the victorious team and will lead his country in Gabon.
Apart from Zaha, Dussuyer will hope Salomon Kalou of Hertha Berlin, Wilfried Bony of Stoke City and Jonathan Kodjia of English second-tier side Aston Villa can deliver goals.
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