Cote d'Ivoire have only qualified for the World Cup twice and have only won the Africa Cup of Nations once, but they have emerged as the true powerhouses of African football. Ghana remain close competitors and Egypt, even with their recent struggles with both football and violence, will always be a threat, but Les Elephants have looked a class above during this cycle.
In their last 11 competitive matches, they are perfect. 11 wins from 11 games in Africa Cup of Nations qualifying and the tournament proper. In those games, they have scored 28 goals and conceded just four. They have not conceded once in the Africa Cup of Nations. And of course, even if they didn't have that impeccable record, they would have Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers and a number of other stars who play at the highest level. They are, by any standard, the favorites to win any neutral site match against African opposition.
While Angola, Burkina Faso and Mali had either the talent or form to push the Ivory Coast, none of them really accomplished it. It's not unreasonable, then, to say that they are facing their biggest test of the tournament on Sunday when they take on Zambia in the final. While Zambia are not one of the giants of African football, they have been fantastic in this tournament and are deserving finalists.
Emmanuel Mayuka's game-winning goal against Ghana was brilliant, but not out of the ordinary. He's having an excellent tournament and an excellent young career, scoring regularly for Young Boys in Switzerland. His striker partner, veteran Christopher Katongo, is in similarly great form. They present a legitimate threat to Cote D'Ivoire, and it would be patronizing and unfair to say that Zambia are lucky to be here because of how good those two players have been.
It's no surprise that Zambia's strikers can play with anyone; Katongo and Mayuka scored three goals apiece in qualifying. What is slightly surprising, however, is that their midfield and defense also hung with the likes of Senegal and Ghana. In that respect, they are playing slightly above their talent level, but if they're able to match Les Elephants, that will represent a serious trend. Three great games against supposedly superior opposition in one tournament could hardly be described as just luck.
Cote D'Ivoire have the superior players and most of those players have played on the biggest stage, in the Premier League and in the World Cup. They're better technically, they're better athletically, and they are more experienced. Zambia does not play an odd style and they don't have any inherent tactical advantage. There's literally no reason to predict that the Copper Bullets will pull off an upset, but the same could have been said (and was said) about their matches against Senegal and Ghana. Their defense keeps surprising, while Katongo and Mayuka keep playing well.
Expect Les Elephants to win, but even if they do it emphatically, Zambia will leave the Africa Cup of Nations knowing that they've exceeded expectations and set higher ones for the next tournament.
Zambia vs. Cote d'Ivoire
Game Date/Time: Sunday, February 12, 2:00 p.m. ET, 8:00 p.m. local
Venue: Stade d'Angondje, Libreville, Gabon