17:30 GMT, Saturday 11th November, Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Abidjan, Côte
d’Ivoire), BT Sport 3
Having qualified for the last three successive World Cups, the Ivory Coast head into the final group stage game staring at the very real possibility they will miss out next year.
Marc Wilmots’ side have been poor in comparison to previous years with an inconsistent run in the World Cup Qualifiers which have seen them fail to record a win at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations and more recently have them held by bottom side Mali and losing at home to Gabon.
Despite losing their grip on top-spot in the table and only recording one win from six competitive games this year, their fate still lies in their own hands.
Morocco are unbeaten in their five games from Group C (W2, D3) and can qualify if they maintain this status beyond Friday. If they succeed, this will be the first time Morocco have reached the finals since 1998.
It will be a welcome return to the competition for a side who were the first African nation to win a point and also the first side to progress through the group stages. However, they’re not there yet and they will need to overcome the weight of expectancy which has crippled them for many of the last 20 years.
Last Time Out
Mali 0-0 Ivory Coast (World Cup qualification)
Ivory Coast’s hopes of qualification were left hanging in the balance as a lifeless game saw Mali’s hopes finally extinguished.
Without many of their star players, it was the absence of Jean Seri in the centre of the team which was most keenly felt as Les Éléphants were unable to dictate proceedings while their makeshift strike force struggled to threaten Mali’s goal.
Mali’s Moussa Doumbia had the game’s best moment when he had a shot come back off the woodwork midway through the second half. The away side eventually sprung to life at the end of the game but it was too little, too late with a scoreless draw being a fair result and a true reflection of the game.
Morocco 3-0 Gabon (World Cup qualification)
A day after Mali held the Ivory Coast to a draw, the Atlas Lions took advantage of the situation to knock Gabon out of the competition and claim pole position in Group C.
While Gabon manager Jose Antonio Camacho added weight to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s claim the team were pole-axed the day before the game by a batch of soured orange juice, they were still resoundingly beaten by Morocco.
A hat-trick from Khalid Boutaib was the difference between the two sides although Gabon rarely troubled the home team and produced only two shots on goal during the entire game, neither of those being on target.
By comparison, the Atlas Lions enjoyed 20 shots on goal with 73% of possession in what was ultimately a comfortable victory for a team who have slowly built up a head of steam through this qualification process.
Ivory Coast Lineup
Eric Bailly is missing through suspension after picking up a yellow card in the game against Mali while Wilfried Bony and Jean Seri will both be unavailable through injuries.
Wilfried Zaha is fit and ready to return to the squad which will be a much-welcomed boost for their attacking options.
Morocco don’t have any major injury concerns and will be able to field the same starting eleven which proved more than sufficient against Gabon last month.
They do, however, have options from the bench with Southampton’s Soufiane Boufal to call upon and, perhaps more pertinently, Achraf Bencherki who is a young centre-forward who has greatly impressed for Wydad recently.
Key Battle: Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast) vs Medhi Benatia (Morocco)
Zaha has only been back from injury for one month but has already picked up where he finished last season. As Crystal Palace’s main danger man, Wilmots will be hoping he can bring this same form to his countries table. After choosing to represent his country of birth over England last December, this will be the first time in 20 years that Zaha has been back on native soil. If he can lead his international side to the Finals next summer, he’s likely to get a welcome home he’ll never forget.
What Morocco don’t have in high-profile, star-name players, they more than make up for in their collective ability. One star name they do possess, however, is captain and Juventus defender, Medhi Benatia.
As a team who have failed to score in three of their five games in the qualification group, defence has been key to their success. Morocco are yet to concede a goal in Group C and another clean sheet would not only be a remarkable achievement from what many labelled the group of death, it will guarantee them a trip to Russia next year.
A chink in the elephant’s skin
With the Ivory Coast forwards proving to be inconsistent, it has been their defence which has helped to carry them through their recent stumbles. Despite having a weakness between the posts, the back-four have formed a formidable shield to protect their goal.
Eric Bailly’s suspension means that they will be without a key component this weekend. With Lamine Koné a potential replacement, the out-of-form Sunderland defender cannot compare to the player he’s replacing.
The elephant’s ghost
Hervé Renard may not have success at club level but he’s proven himself to be highly adept at leading international sides to relative glory. Having led Zambia to the quarter-final stage of the AFCON in 2010, he then won the tournament with them two years later.
The first manager to claim the title with two different countries when he managed the Ivory Coast to victory in 2015, Renard is now aiming to impede his old team by taking Morocco to the World Cup finals at their expense. With first-hand inside knowledge of the players, he will have more than just his lucky white shirt to help him prevail.
Prediction: Ivory Coast 1-2 Morocco
This fixture is sure to be an all-action affair with the Ivory Coast needing to score to stand any chance of topping the group. The last three results between these two sides since January 2016 have seen a 0-0 draw and a 1-0 win each to leave this tie on a knife-edge.
However, this game should be more open than those previous encounters. While the home advantage for Les Éléphants can be balanced out with their poor form this year, Renard seems to have found a formula which works at international level and a win for his side will see the Ivory Coast eliminated and, quite possibly, the end of Marc Wilmots’ time in charge of the team.
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