JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – Turkey-bound African football superstar Didier Drogba has backed the rotation system of coach Sabri Lamouchi after Ivory Coast won Group D at the Cup of Nations with a game to spare.
The perennial title favourites face Algeria at Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace Wednesday with only pride at stake after contrasting victories over Togo and Tunisia in this north-western mining town.
Ivory Coast took 88 minutes to subdue stubborn Togo with Gervinho finishing off a free kick from fellow English Premier League star Yaya Toure, and Lamouchi responded by making four changes.
Out went veteran Manchester City defender Kolo Toure, midfielders Max Gradel and Didier Ya Konan and striker and skipper Drogba, 34, who says he is playing in the premier African football championship for the last time.
It was a bold move by Lyon-born coaching novice Lamouchi given the iconic status of Drogba, who moved to Shanghai outfit Shenhua last year after playing a pivotal role when Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League for the first time.
But it worked spectacularly as the Elephants gave a much-improved performance and after Gervinho struck midway through the opening half, late goals from Yaya Toure and Ya Konan wrapped up an impressive triumph.
Drogba, who signed an 18-month contract with Istanbul-based Galatasaray this week, told reporters he had no problem starting the match on the bench, before being introduced during the second half to prolonged applause.
“There is no issue with me being benched — and do not try and make a big deal out of it,” warned the former African Footballer of the Year. “The coach picks the team and we respect his decisions.”
“That also goes for the other 22 players in the squad. Why should it be an issue that I was benched? I am happy to see Ivory Coast winning — that is all that matters.”
Kolo Toure and Lille striker Salomon Kalou, one of the quartet drafted in for the Tunisia clash, echoed the views of Drogba ahead of the fifth Cup of Nations meeting with a demoralised Desert Foxes team already out of title contention.
“We won against Togo without being very impressive, but the players were really good against Tunisia and triumphed in style,” boasted Kolo Toure, the elder brother of Yaya.
Former Chelsea striker Kalou concurred: “The players who came in performed really well against Tunisia. The coach has created an environment in which everyone has a chance to play if you give of your best.”
Lamouchi has dropped no hints as to his likely starting line-up against the Algerians, whose early extra-time goal brought a shock 3-2 quarter-finals victory in the last meeting three years ago.
When the 2013 tournament draw was made in Durban last October, Ivory Coast against Algeria stood out as a highlight of the 24-fixture first round, but losses to Tunisia (1-0) and Togo (2-0) have eliminated the north Africans.
Experienced Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic came to South Africa with a raw but talented squad, including highly rated Valencia wide midfielder Sofiane Feghouli.
But after having the better of Tunisia, the Foxes conceded the only goal of the game in the final minute, and a host of chances were fritted away against more clinical Togo.
Algerian officials insist Halilhodzic is safe ahead of a 2014 World Cup qualifier against Benin during March, but a strained relationship between the coach and sections of the domestic media could up the stakes in coming weeks.