In an odd tournament where most of Africa's biggest sides struggled to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, Cote D'Ivoire were an exception. They breezed through qualifying with a perfect record of six wins from six matches and a goal differential of +15, conceding four times and scoring 19 goals. While their qualifying group was not the toughest in the tournament, there were other strong sides that struggled against worse. They look like a well-oiled machine, and they enter the tournament as favorites.
Time is running out on the career of Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast captain and the best player that the nation has ever produced. He's scored 51 goals for his country and appeared in both the knockout stages of this competition and the World Cup on two occasions, but has never won a major trophy with his country.
Drogba is the oldest member of this team, but he is not the only player who is nearing the end of their chances to taste success on the international level. The Toure brothers are both in their late 20s, as is Abdul Kader Keita and most of the defense. The Africa Cup of Nations is changing to odd years, so they will get another crack at glory in 2013 if they fail this time around, but time is running out on the core of this squad.
Francois Zahoui has transitioned between two and three striker formations in friendlies and qualifying, but appears set to play with Drogba as a central striker, flanked by two wide forwards for this competition. If Zahoui made the decision to switch to two forwards, Drogba would likely be partnered by Seydou Doumbia, but the CSKA man will be out of the starting XI in the team's current projected setup.
In two warm-up friendlies, the Elephans have used two different kinds of systems with three in the midfield. Expect to see Kader Keita play in front of a double pivot of Cheick Tiote and Yaya Toure against weaker sides, while Toure will play ahead of Tiote and defensive midfielder Jean-Jacques Gosso or Didier Zokora when they are playing strong opposition or trying to kill off the game.
On the wings, there appear to be three players fighting for two spots that are not yet decided, and could rotate within the tournament. Solomon Kalou, Didier Ya Konan and Gervinho are battling out for the places on either side of Didier Drogba, with the two Premier League stars appearing to have the upper hand.
The defense is strong, but there is one player who sticks out like a sore thumb. Sol Bamba, who plays for English League Championship side Leicester City, appears to be the starter in the center of defense. Considering the quality of team that most of the squad plays for, this is a bit conspicuous to say the least. However, Zahoui has experimented with playing both Didier Zokora and Yaya Toure as central defenders in a pinch, and it wouldn't be terribly shocking to see this happen again.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-2-3-1)
Didier Drogba: He's the captain and all-time leading goal-scorer. Even when Kader Keita is in the game, Drogba is the man not only most responsible for scoring goals, but the man most responsible for facilitating the attack and bringing his teammates into the game. Even at 33-years-old, he is still the focal point of the team.
Champions: This is the best squad in Africa with the best qualifying record coming into the tournament. Ghana can absolutely give them a run for their money and the neutrals can only hope that the two sides get a chance to play during this tournament, but Cote D'Ivoire gets the edge for their perfect qualifying record and the club form of their players.