Ivory Coast’s Elephants face a challenge of jumbo proportions against Portugal in Group G on Tuesday in a game where the points may hinge on the fitness of their talismanic striker Didier Drogba.
The match in Port Elizabeth could dictate who advances from a tough section that also features five-times World Cup winners Brazil and the tournament’s most mysterious side North Korea.
Portugal have a lot to prove after a patchy journey to the finals and doubts remain over whether the influential Pepe is ready to start after a lengthy injury layoff. There are also question marks about Cristiano Ronaldo’s ability to replicate his potent performances with Real Madrid at the World Cup after mediocre displays in the qualifiers.
Although the Ivorians have plenty of talent, the absence of the inspirational Drogba, who scored an eye-popping 37 goals for Chelsea in all competitions last season, could complicate their chances of reaching the second round for the first time.
With no easy matches in the group, the key question facing their Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson is whether the Elephants can afford to hold Drogba back for later games.
The striker has resumed training after having surgery on a broken arm sustained on June 4 but Eriksson might have to draw on his contingency plans if his leading marksman is not fit. Kolo Toure, who will captain the team if Drogba does not play, believes younger players like Salomon Kalou and Seydou Doumbia have the ability to step into the void.
Eriksson knows Portugal only too well after they eliminated his England side in penalty shootouts at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2004 and the last World Cup in Germany.
Portugal are braced for a fierce campaign and a tricky opener against an Ivory Coast side that even without Drogba can boast top class talent like Kolo and his brother Yaya Toure as well as Kalou, Didier Zokora and Emmanuel Eboue.