Didier Drogba may be looking at his best chance of reaching the knockout stage in what will be the aging striker's final World Cup.
After failing to get out of the group stage at the last two World Cups, Ivory Coast was drawn into Group C with Colombia, Greece and Japan. In 2006, Ivory Coast took on the Netherlands and Argentina, losing narrowly to both. Things were hardly better four years ago in South Africa when Brazil and Portugal were the group favorites.
In those competitions, and despite the best efforts of a Drogba still enjoying his peak years, Ivory Coast finished third both times. Despite the better draw for the tournament in Brazil, Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi has played down expectations in the football-mad country where every defeat is met with howls of despair.
"I think it's quite a difficult and well-balanced group, which means that there's everything to play for," Lamouchi told The Associated Press. "Greece has lost only five of the last 55 matches — meaning they're a very hard team to play against — and Japan is one of the best, if not the best, team in Asia. They've improved enormously."
Lamouchi already knows what the reaction will be back in Abidjan if his team qualifies for the second round. "The ambition of the African people is to go as far as possible, even to maybe win the World Cup ... I can't stop people from dreaming," Lamouchi said. "It would already be an achievement to get out of the group stage and then obviously after that it will be more difficult to play Italy, Uruguay or England."
A 2-2 draw against Belgium in early March was a good test, and pre-World Cup friendlies against Bosnia and El Salvador in May will give fringe players a final chance to impress before the opening Group C game against Japan in Recife on June 14.
"If we go there with (no ambition) then there's no point in going. Our aim is to achieve what they couldn't in 2006 and 2010," Lamouchi said. "We need to be a bit more rigorous, a bit more disciplined, focused and determined."
The current squad has one final chance to prove it can handle pressure following the disappointment of losing African Cup finals in 2006 and 2012. "I'm expecting the same thing from Didier and the rest of the players — to use all of his talent and experience and of all of his qualities as a football player and a man to help the Ivory Coast get past the first round," Lamouchi said.