Ivory Coast’s newly minted African champions return to domestic matters

European clubs in championship races are eager to bring their Ivorian stars back into the fold, writes Ian Hawkey

Ivory Coast forward Wilfried Bony, No 12, carries goalkeeper Boubacar Barry on his shoulders as they celebrate with forward Gervinho after winning the African Cup of Nations final in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, on February 8, 2015. Carl de Souza / AFP
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Boubacar Barry has had his finest hour in football. At 35, it is unlikely he will experience again a high in the game as elevated as Sunday night’s penalty kick that won the African Cup of Nations for his Ivory Coast.

Barry started the tournament as second-choice keeper, but Sylvaine Gbohouo injured a thigh in the semi-final and Barry was called into the first XI.

His decisive penalty ended en epic shootout at 9-8, and he could be forgiven for finding his next set of challenges rather underwhelming.

He returned this week to Lokeren, in the Belgian Pro League, where he has spent most of his career, to hearty congratulations from club colleagues, who know him as “Copa”.

He is a popular figure and an instantly recognisable one in the competition, a league where several Ivorians of his generation have played, most of whom used it as a stepping stone to more illustrious football landscapes.

Barry faces a contest to regain his first XI place at Lokeren as his deputy, Davino Verhuyst, has kept goal through an unbeaten run in Barry’s absence.

Elsewhere, though, several of the newly crowned African champions are urgently required by heavyweight European clubs chasing prizes. Some have been badly missed.

In Italy, Roma have waited anxiously for Gervinho to return to training. He was scheduled to return to Italy on Friday from Abidjan, where the African champions were feted by large crowds as they paraded the trophy they won at Ghana’s expense.

Gervinho’s pace and pizzazz are important parts of Roma’s effectiveness.

When he left, Roma were trailing Serie A leaders Juventus by three points; the gap has grown to seven in his absence.

At Roma, there is also impatience to see the stealthy finishing of Ivorian centre-forward Seydou Doumbia, who was bought by the club for about €15 million (Dh62.8m) in the winter transfer window from CSKA Moscow.

His four-week absence with the national side in Equatorial Guinea coincided with Roma being knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Fiorentina.

Ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Parma and next week’s Europa League game against Feyenoord, Roma coach Rudi Garcia said the Ivorians would “add the versatility we want and a bigger range of options”.

Like Doumbia, Wilfried Bony moved in January. Like Doumbia, he is thrust into a title race where his new club's prospects have receded while the Cup of Nations was occupying his time.

When Bony, a prolific striker for Swansea during the past 12 months, signed for Manchester City, they were joint top of the Premier League. They now trail Chelsea by seven points.

Bony, who is yet to make his City debut, is not responsible for that, but Yaya Toure might be as City won none of their four Premier League fixtures while Toure was on international duty.

In France, Paris Saint-Germain trust Serge Aurier can galvanise their defence of the Ligue 1 title and, in Germany, Stuttgart need midfielder Serey Die, whom they signed in the winter window from Basel, to help lift them off the foot of the Bundesliga table.

Also fighting Bundesliga relegation is Hertha Berlin, Salomon Kalou’s club.

“I hope Salomon will come back with all the confidence you would expect from a new champion,” said Michael Preetz, Hertha’s general manager.

Preetz’s thoughts will be echoed in Manchester, Paris, Rome and even in provincial Lokeren, where the mid-table employers of Ivory Coast’s unlikely hero, Copa Barry, face league leaders Brugge on Sunday.