LIBREVILLE • Veteran striker Salomon Kalou believes Ivory Coast will raise their game after a poor qualifying campaign and win a second successive Africa Cup of Nations title.
The Elephants looked anything but defending African champions as they struggled to make the 2017 tournament in Gabon-which starts on Saturday - from a group including modest rivals Sierra Leone and Sudan.
The West Africans' form subsequently improved with a home win over Mali and an away draw against Morocco in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. They also forced a morale-boosting goalless away draw with France in a November friendly international.
Kalou, poised to compete at his fifth Cup of Nations, sees similarities with the trophy-winning 2015 campaign.
"We also battled in the previous qualifiers, losing heavily in Cameroon and also failing at home to DR 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," he said.
"The final against Ghana was a tight, tense affair and our experience and calmness shone through in the post-match penalty shoot- out."
Ivory Coast won 9-8 on spot kicks following 120 goalless minutes.
After the champions-to-be fluffed their first two penalties, Kalou was among nine consecutive Ivorians to score.
"To win the Cup of Nations you must have plenty of quality in your squad, and we do," he stressed, ahead of Group C games against Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Morocco.
Ivory Coast will also expect Crystal Palace flier Wilfried Zaha to step in for the injured Gervinho as they try to become only the fourth country to successfully defend the continental title.
Egypt have achieved the feat three times in the 60-year-old African football showcase with Ghana and Cameroon once each.
Abidjan-born Zaha was brought up in England and made two friendly appearances for his adopted country, but never featured in a competitive game.
Ivory Coast sent France-born coach Michel Dussuyer and several national football federation officials to London, and they persuaded him to change his international allegiance.
"I had ample time to analyse my situation and take into account the solicitations of the Ivorian Football Federation," said Zaha. "Now I want to play with the Ivory Coast, primarily because I am proud to represent my country."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS