Ivory Coast hope on Nicolas Pepe to banish memories of disastrous AFCON outing

The 2015 champions were held by Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and lost against Morocco to make an undignified exit from Gabon after the first round.
Lille’s Ivorian forward Nicolas Pepe (C) vies with Anger’s French midfielder Baptiste Santamaria during the French L1 football match between Lille (LOSC) and Angers (SCO) at the Pierre-Mauroy Stadium in Villeneuve d’Ascq, near Lille, northern France, on May 18 2019. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP)

Ivory Coast coach Ibrahim Kamara sees Nicolas Pepe as one of the young stars who can banish the memories of a disastrous Africa Cup of Nations title defence two years ago. The 2015 champions were held by Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and lost against Morocco to make an undignified exit from Gabon after the first round.

Kamara hopes Pepe, the 22-goal second highest French Ligue 1 scorer last season behind superstar Kylian Mbappe, can ensure there is no repeat of that debacle in Egypt. “We are building a team to match the great ones of the past and hope players like Nicolas can take us a long way in Egypt,” said Kamara.

Ivory Coast is in Group D with South Africa – who they face in Cairo on Monday – Morocco and Namibia, a section widely regarded as the toughest of the six to qualify from. Here is a preview of the three-match Monday schedule, which also includes a Group E double-header in Suez involving Angola, Mali, debutants Mauritania and Tunisia.

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Ivory Coast v South Africa – these countries resume a rivalry 21 years after drawing 1-1 in Burkina Faso, and a similar outcome at the Al Salam Stadium would not be surprising as neither side dare lose. “As much as every team wants to win its first tournament match, it is crucial not to lose because it puts you on the back foot immediately,” says South Africa coach Stuart Baxter.

While Ivory Coast has a potential matchwinner in Pepe from Ligue 1 runners-up Lille, South Africa hope Percy Tau can rise to the occasion after a season in the Belgian second division. The slightly-built attacker was signed by Premier League outfit Brighton last season, lent to Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium, and his brace against Libya ensured qualification for Egypt.

South Africa had a puzzling build-up with Baxter rejecting a chance to play in a regional championship, then complaining that he had only one warm-up match, a draw against Ghana.

Angola v Tunisia – This is another match that brings together teams for only the second time in the Cup of Nations, with a goalless draw 11 years ago in Ghana ensuring both of quarter-finals places. It will be a record-extending 14th straight appearance at the tournament by the Tunisians, who failed to go beyond the group stage only four times.

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“Our first target is the quarter-finals and after that, we shall see,” says cautious Tunisia coach and 19080s France star Alain Giresse. “Tunisia has been serious contenders in many Cup of Nations and my dream is to take them back to the top,” he said.

Angola is a workmanlike side whose star is a wide attacker from Egyptian giants Al Ahly nicknamed Geraldo – real name Hermenegildo da Costa Paulo Bartolomeu.

Mali v Mauritania – Mali created several negative pre-tournament headlines with FIFA threatening to ban the country from the Cup of Nations over squabbling among officials.

Mohamed Magassouba then took four days longer than any of the other 23 coaches to name his squad, without offering an explanation.

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Such chaotic build-ups can build team unity or destroy it as Mali seek to regain a reputation for punching well above their weight in the African showpiece.  “We have to do better than in the last two tournaments,” stressed defender Hamari Traore, referring to first-round exits in 2015 and 2017 without winning even one match.

Long-time pushovers Mauritania has improved steadily under French coach Corentin Martins, whose aim in Egypt is simply to “be competitive and achieve some victories”.

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