Experienced Côte d’Ivoire international striker Salomon Kalou is confident in the quality of players available in his national team ahead of their defence of the Africa Cup of Nations title this month.
The 2017 AFCON is taking place in Gabon, and the 31-year-old Hertha Berlin attacker is confident that the Elephants will be able to win the title they earned two years ago following a tense penalty shootout victory over rivals Ghana in the final.
The Ivorians have failed to impress at times during the last year, struggling to qualify for the premier African national team competition from a group that included Sierra Leone and Sudan. But Kalou is not concerned with the way in which qualification was achieved, explaining that struggling in qualification is nothing new for Côte d’Ivoire.
‘We also battled in the previous qualifiers, losing heavily in Cameroon and also failing at home to the Democratic Republic of Congo. But by the time we got to the knockout stage of the finals in Equatorial Guinea, we were producing outstanding football and scored three goals each in victories over Algeria and DR Congo,’ Kalou admitted.
‘The final against Ghana was a tight, tense affair and our experience and calmness shone through in the post-match penalties shootout,’ he added.
Going into the tournament they recently lost former captain Yaya Touré, who retired from the national team, as well as star attacking player Gervinho, who suffered a knee injury and underwent surgery late last year.
Those personnel losses, combined with the added pressure of defending their title, meant that many football pundits were questioning the West Africans’ ability to rise to the occasion in Gabon this year, but Kalou exuded confidence concerning the quality of players representing the country.
‘To win the Cup of Nations you must have plenty of quality in your squad, and we do,’ the former Chelsea player explained.
Côte d’Ivoire are in Group C at the 2017 Nations Cup, with opponents Togo, DR Congo and Morocco standing in the way of their progression to the knockout stages.
While the Ivorians certainly have undoubted pedigree within the team, a difficult group and pressure going into the competition as the current champions could derail a title defence at the very beginning.
A winning start against Togo on January 16 is an absolute must. Veterans such as Kalou need to step forward as leaders within a group that is missing key leadership figures such as the Touré brothers and Gervinho, in order to guide their team through the difficult group. Once they progress to the knockout stages, anything is possible.