Zaha gives wing to Ivorians' title defence

Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha is expected to make his competitive debut for the Ivory Coast on Monday, when the reigning African champions face Togo.
Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha is expected to make his competitive debut for the Ivory Coast on Monday, when the reigning African champions face Togo.PHOTO: REUTERS

LIBREVILLE • Ivory Coast are hoping to retain the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off in Gabon today, buoyed by encouraging results and the impressive form of new recruit Wilfried Zaha.

The Crystal Palace winger hopes to make an impact in a competition that boasts Europe-based stars such as Riyad Mahrez of Algeria, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon and Sadio Mane of Senegal.

Zaha, 24, is a timely addition as many former stars like the Toure brothers Kolo, 35, and Yaya, 33, have retired and star winger Gervinho is injured.

Abidjan-born Zaha has been lured to the African champions by the possibilities of continental and World Cup glory after two friendly appearances for adopted country England. He set up the crucial goal in a 2-1 warm-up win over Sweden last Sunday and scored in a 3-0 victory over fellow Cup of Nations qualifiers Uganda three days later.

Ivory Coast are in Group C and kick off their campaign on Monday against Emmanuel Adebayor-captained Togo. That will be followed by showdowns with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Morocco.

"The objective is, of course, to retain the title that was proudly acquired in 2015," said Ivory Coast manager Michel Dussuyer. "It will not be easy. There are fine teams who aspire to win the trophy, but we have the weapons to go far."

Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang carries the hopes of Gabon, who are in Group A alongside four-time champions Cameroon. Burkina Faso and shock qualifiers Guinea-Bissau complete the group.

Mahrez will aim to top a magnificent 12 months by taking Algeria to the Feb 5 final and their first continental title since 1990. He heads for Gabon fresh from winning the African Player of the Year prize for 2016, pipping last year's winner Aubameyang.

"The next thing after this award is the Africa Cup of Nations. My team will try to do good things there," the star of Leicester's sensational Premier League title triumph last year said.

Algeria and a Senegal side - the top-ranked in Africa - led by Liverpool forward Mane are among the major title contenders.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2017, with the headline 'Zaha gives wing to Ivorians' title defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe