LUANDA // This Cup of Nations has been, so far, a bad tournament for favourites. After the first round of games, not a single one of the sides who have qualified for the World Cup have won a game, and if Ivory Coast fail to beat Ghana today, they will be as good as out. The meeting of the west African giants was always going to be one of the highlights of the first round of the Cup of Nations, but events have conspired to enhance its importance yet further.
This is no longer simply about Michael Essien against his Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba, but in a far more direct way than anybody anticipated about qualification. The problem of a three-team group - as this has become after the withdrawal of Togo following last Friday's militant attack - from which two qualify is that the pair playing in the final game know exactly what they need to do. If Ivory Coast win today, then Ghana will have to beat Burkina Faso on Tuesday to qualify. Any other result this afternoon and Ghana and Burkina Faso could arrange a result that will see both through.
That is not to say that they would necessarily sit down beforehand to fix anything, but if the score was mutually beneficial with, say, 20 minutes to go, it is hard to imagine either side showing much desire to change things. "We are now in a very difficult position," said the Ivory Coast coach Vahid Halilhodzic. "But still have all the cards in our hands and I know we can go through to the knockout phase."
He himself, though, admitted before the tournament to being "scared" by the pressure on his team. That they are one of the greatest generations of footballers Africa has ever produced is not in doubt, but this should be their peak, and the fear lurks that if success does not come soon, it may never arrive. "This generation has a responsibility," Halilhodzic said. "They do not have to fail like the previous teams because they have learnt from past mistakes. They have the arduous task of bringing glory to the land especially in the face of hope and expectancy."
The Chelsea striker Drogba has admitted that in the past there has been a problem of attitude within the Ivory Coast side, with the hype and expectation perhaps dulling their competitive edge. "We will treat every opponent with respect, humility and seriousness," Drogba said. "There is no room for complacency like in Ghana [in 2008 when they stormed into the semi-finals, scoring 13 goals in four games, only to lose to Egypt].
"No game is won in advance." That message was hammered home on Monday in the 0-0 draw with Burkina Faso. Not playing, meanwhile, has done Ghana's standing the power of good, as all around them have faltered. Their problems have been obscured by the chaos of the first week of the tournament, but they are real enough. With the defenders John Pantsil and John Mensah, and the midfielders Stephen Appiah and Lareyea Kingston injured, and Inter Milan's Sulley Muntari exiled from the squad after failing to turn up for a friendly against Angola in November, this is a squad heavily reliant on the squad who won the World Under 20 championship last year.
"We're itching to get going," said Essien, who only arrived on Sunday after his departure from London after treatment on a troublesome hamstring was delayed by snow and the closure of a runway at Heathrow after a bomb hoax. "The best I have seen so far here is Mali coming from 4-0 down to draw. To do that is amazing. There have been some shocks already and I'm sure there will be more. But the mood I our camp is calm. In tournaments like this you always want to get your first game out of the way and get going."
Drogba has insisted he will be "delighted" to see his Chelsea team-mate again. "I'm really happy that he is fit again," he said, although it remains unclear whether Essien will be recovered enough to start. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Ivory Coast v Ghana, KO 10.30pm, Aljazeera Sport + 9