CAIRO: Jonathan Kodjia struck the only goal as Ivory Coast defeated South Africa 1-0 in the steamy Cairo heat on Monday in a meeting of former Africa Cup of Nations champions.
Ivory Coast won the title for the second time in 2015 but crashed out in the group stage two years ago without a victory and are trying to rebuild a team to match that of their golden generation.
The Elephants set themselves up for a much improved display in Egypt after Kodjia scrambled home the winner on 64 minutes against the 1996 champions.
“It was a difficult match and the important thing for us was not to come a cropper in the opening game,” said Ivory Coast coach Ibrahim Kamara. “We needed to start well in the competition and that’s what we’ve done.”
South Africa boss Stuart Baxter said he had no complaints about the result after his side rarely threatened the Ivorian goal.
“Because of the lack of strikes on goal we can’t complain about losing the game, but I thought the players put in a great performance and it’s a great learning curve for us,” he said.
Kamara sees Nicolas Pepe as one the young stars who can banish the memories of a disastrous title defense, and the in-demand Lille forward soon demonstrated his talent with a jinking run that ended with Kodjia snatching at a shot from close range.
South Africa, who failed to qualify for the 2017 edition, on the other hand have arrived in Egypt as one of the most unpredictable teams.
Bafana Bafana scaled the heights at the outset of 2019 qualifying by winning 2-0 in Nigeria, then sank into mediocrity by drawing 0-0 away to lowly ranked Seychelles.
In the first half at Al Salam Stadium where temperatures again peaked around 37 Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit) they were largely limited to counter-attacks, captain Thulani Hlatshwayo going closest with a header that brushed the roof of the net.
Ivory Coast headed home early in Gabon after they were held by Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and lost against Morocco, but they nearly took the lead here twice in quick succession around the half-hour.
After a foul on the edge of the South Africa box Pepe, the 22-goal second highest French Ligue 1 scorer last season behind Kylian Mbappe, slammed a thunderous free kick against the crossbar with Ronwen Williams rooted to the spot.
The South Africa goalkeeper then produced a stunning reflex save to keep Kodjia out moments later as the Aston Villa forward ran clean through before needlessly opting for power over precision.
Amid the energy-sapping heat both sides made a labored start to the second half but it eventually burst into life when Kodjia atoned for his earlier miss.
Max Gradel was released into space down the left and the winger whipped a precise early ball across to an unmarked Kodjia who stabbed beyond Williams.
South Africa substitute Lars Veldwijk tumbled to the ground under pressure from Serge Kanon late on as they pressed for an equalizer and Sibusiso Vilakazi blazed over on the turn, while Pepe was denied a second for Ivory Coast from another free-kick following a flying save by Williams.