RUSTENBURG, South Africa: Favorites Ivory Coast were made to sweat but eventually overcame enterprising Group D ‘lightweights’ Togo 2-1 to get their Africa Cup of Nations campaign off on the right note yesterday.
Premier League stars Yaya Toure and Gervinho got the goals for the continent’s top-ranked team with Jonathan Ayite scoring for Togo, back in the competition after the deadly Cabinda attack before the 2010 finals in Angola.
Despite all the pre-competition focus on Didier Drogba making his Cup swansong, the veteran China-based striker went largely AWOL throughout the match and was taken off with quarter of an hour to go.
Ivory Coast’s starting XI for the Group D opener featured three Premier League stars — Manchester City’s Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya and Gervinho of Arsenal, with Newcastle’s Cheik Tiote on the bench.
A fourth taking a busman’s holiday from the British winter to help his national cause was Togo’s talismanic Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who decided to turn up after a protracted ‘will he won’t he play’ saga.
The match kicked off before barely a couple of thousand fans at the 42,000-capacity Royal Bafokeng stadium — a small crowd was only to be expected perhaps in Rustenburg, Afrikaans for ‘city of sleep’.
Adebayor almost nicked a goal in the opening seconds, when an Ivory Coast defensive blunder presented him with the ball bang smack in front of goal, but dithering undid him and keeper Boubacar Barry cleared.
On eight minutes Gervinho proved too quick for his marker down the right flank, his cross finding Yaya Toure who struck first time, the ball zinging through the Togolese defense, taking a deflection en route, and into the back of Kossi Agassa’s net.
The midfielder has now scored at every one of the last four Nations Cups.
Despite the gulf in class — they are ranked a yawning 63 rungs below the Ivorians — Togo were making frequent incursions into Elephant territory, with Ayite and Serge Akakpo proving particularly meddlesome.
Ivory Coast, beaten by Zambia on penalties for the title in 2012, seemed happy to sit on their lead, although Yaya Toure almost got a second when his shot ricocheted off the near upright. Then, in the second minute of stoppage time, Togo achieved something that no team had accomplished throughout the entire tournament last year — namely score against Drogba and company.
They drew level when Ayite knocked in Serge Akakpo’s corner from the left — the first goal Barry has conceded in 613 minutes of CAN action.
Togo had the ball in the back of the net for a second time approaching the hour mark off a corner but Cameroon referee Alioum Neant disallowed it, ordering the kick to be retaken as they had taken it too early.
Gervinho and Yaya Toure teamed up neatly again with 15 minutes left, Toure’s shot denied by Agassa’s superb reflex save.
Then, with two minutes left, Gervinho saved Ivory Coast’s blushes, this time Yaya Toure turning provider with the free-kick which the Arsenal man swept past Agassa.
A last-gasp goal from substitute Alain Traore gave Burkina Faso a surprising 1-1 draw against 10-man Nigeria on Monday night.
Two-time champion Nigeria had controlled the Group C game from the 23rd minute, when Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike poked home a clever back-heel volley from Brown Ideye, but had victory nicked from under its nose in the final play of the game.
Nigeria defender Efe Ambrose was sent off in the 74th minute for a second yellow card, but Burkina Faso lacked the creativity to break its opponent down until Traore capitalized on a slip by defender Godfrey Oboabona in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
Victor Moses was left out by Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi because of a slight hamstring strain, but his Chelsea teammate John Obi Mikel put in a solid performance and was named man of the match.
Aside from Traore’s unexpected strike, which came as Nigeria sat back and waited for the final whistle, only striker Moumouni Dagano was able to trouble Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
But Nigeria were ultimately penalized for a lack of ambition after taking the lead, creating just one good chance in the second half when substitute Ikechukwu Uche cut inside from the left wing and blazed over the crossbar.
The Super Eagles then paid when Oboabona failed to make contact with an attempted clearance and Traore side footed home.
The result leaves all four teams in Group C with a point after Zambia was held to a 1-1 draw with Ethiopia in the earlier game.