African qualifiers Ivory Coast will be looking to depart the 2006 FIFA World Cup on a high as they take on a Serbia & Montenegro team that is danger of imploding in Munich this evening.
Both teams have already been eliminated from the tournament following their defeats at the hands of Group C rivals Argentina and Holland. Their performances, however, have been very different. Serbia & Montenegro were poor in their opening 1-0 defeat by Holland and then found themselves on the receiving end of a 6-0 hammering by Argentina – one of the most emphatic defeats in the recent history of the World Cup finals.
By contrast, Ivory Coast have won plenty of admirers in Germany and beyond despite their two 2-1 defeats. Both of their games against their more celebrated and experienced opponents were relatively even contests, and the Ivorians’ pace and flair will remain one of the abiding memories of the group stage. They will start this evening’s match as undoubted favourites.
End of an era
Tonight will be Serbia & Montenegro’s final international match. The break-up of the two former Yugoslav provinces means that they will play their future matches separately and, judging by the behaviour of some of their fans during the finals, this is no bad thing.
“The break-up of the country is not completely to blame for our performances but it is a contributing factor,” under-fire coach Ilija Petkovic told the press on Monday.
“All teams and fans sing their national anthems at the World Cup but ours is booed. It’s hard to play a match in such an atmosphere.”
The humiliation at the hands of a magnificent Argentina has reduced the squad’s morale to an all-time low. With Petkovic announcing his decision to leave his post after tonight’s game, Serbia & Montenegro’s FA have shown real concern that the players will not even try against the ‘Elephants’. As a result they have threatened to withhold the players’ bonus payments, payable as a result of their qualification, in order to ensure the team do not completely embarrass themselves and bring a significant degree of shame onto what has so far been an excellent tournament.
“The game against Ivory Coast is our absolute priority,” FA spokesman Aleksandar Boskovic told the press on Tuesday.
“Financial penalties may be imposed on the players unless they perform with dignity. This would be in the form of the withdrawal of their appearance fees.”
Petkovic will be forced to make two changes for this evening’s game. Ognjen Koroman and Mateja Kezman are both suspended and there is a strong possibility that he may choose to make even more changes for what will be his final match in charge.
“We have to try and avoid the humiliation we have suffered so far,” an emotional Petkovic said on Tuesday.
“We will be trying to salvage some of our pride against Ivory Coast. Though there was a bad atmosphere in the team I must take most of the blame for this debacle. I disregarded my own principles and I’m sorry I didn’t close down the defence.”
Captain Savo Milosevic indicated that the players were not looking forward to tonight’s match.
“It is very difficult to find motivation for this match after what has happened to us at the World Cup,” the ex Aston Villa striker revealed.
“We have tried to focus on it but our morale has been killed off. I don’t know how the players are going to react tomorrow night.”
Their points totals may be the same – nil – but the comparisons between Ivory Coast and their Balkan opponents end there. Morale remains high in the Ivorian camp and, despite the disappointment of having to go home early, players and fans can take much in pride in the way the team has played in their opening matches.
Finish on a high
Ivory Coast’s French coach Henri Michel is looking to finish the tournament on a high and take advantage of the widespread discord that has swept through their opponents in what will be the first and last encounter between the two teams.
“There’s a bad atmosphere in their team and it has showed on the pitch,” Michel said on Tuesday.
“It will be hard to tell how they will handle the last game. They may be totally disinterested and that would be a shame for football. There is also the possibility that they will try to win it just for their pride.”
Michel is tipped to make several changes to the team that lost to Holland on Friday. The enforced absence of suspended captain Didier Drogba will be a blow for the Ivorians, but Michel is likely to take advantage of tonight’s low stakes and blood some of Ivory Coast’s younger players.
“We will do everything we can to win tonight’s game so we can end the tournament with a win,” he said.
“But I will certainly give a chance to the players who haven’t featured yet – then they can all say that they went to the World Cup and played.”
Regarding his widely debated future, Michel had the following to say:
“The Ivorian Soccer Federation have not extended my contract, so for me it finishes with the match against the Serbs. This has been a World Cup of regrets for me. We could have done something great but it turned out otherwise. The main disappointment for me has been the refereeing decisions. I am under the impression that there is a favouritism for larger countries playing against smaller ones.”
Tonight will be only the ninth time that Ivory Coast have faced European opposition, and they will be confident of adding to their tally of three victories. Most neutrals will be hoping that they can round off their memorable campaign with a win, something that will make the difficult journey home to Africa slightly easier.
By Mark Robinson
Ivory Coast: Tizie; Eboue, K Toure, Boka, Meite; Akale, Zokora, Y Toure, Romaric; A Kone, B Kone.
Serbia & Montenegro: Jevric; Basta, Gavrancic, Krstajic, Dragutinovic; Ergic, Duljaj, Stankovic, Vukic; Zigic, Milosevic
Referee:: Marco Rodriguez (Mexico)