Ivory Coast has learned its lessons, coach says

GERALD IMRAY AP Sports Writer Published:

LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) -- Ivory Coast has learned telling lessons from underestimating opponents in previous failures and near-misses at the African Cup of Nations, the country's national team coach said Tuesday.

Francois Zahoui promised his star-studded title favorites would put those lessons to use in Wednesday's semifinal match against an underdog Mali team.

If it didn't, Ivory Coast's tournament could "crumble" around it, Zahoui said.

Zahoui, defender Siaka Tiene and midfielder Didier Zokora spoke at Stade de l'Amitie of their "six finals" at this tournament, saying that the team was treating every game at the African Cup as if it was the decider.

It's a tactic to guard against complacency after the highly rated Ivorians missed out in the latter stages in the last three tournaments -- losing the final in 2006, in the semifinals in 2008 and in the quarterfinals two years ago after being ahead 1-0 and 2-1 against Algeria.

"We did not come here with pride. Our players do not have a spirit of arrogance," Zahoui said. "We are conscious of the weight of responsibility that is on our shoulders ... we could find ourselves in a position where everything crumbles around us.

"In Egypt (2006), Ghana (2008) and Angola (2010) we came very close. We've learned from the past."

Mali coach Alain Giresse earlier said his team would be humble but fearless in a match few people expect the Malians to win.

Humility had been an "essential" part of Mali's success so far, he said, as the squad shrugged off an injury-plagued buildup and a poor performance at the last tournament to reach the semifinals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and set up a match with the continent's top-ranked team.

But Mali didn't fear Ivory Coast or its daunting run of four wins and no goals conceded so far at the championship, the diminutive French coach stressed.

"Humility in sports is essential, (but) this does not preclude our ambition," Giresse said after guiding Mali to the semifinals for the first time since 2004. "We must always be humble. The biggest champions have to be humble to achieve a performance. We won't go into fear. There is no fear.

"We know the numbers, we know the figures. We will not base our judgment on statistics ... the reality is on the field."

Anchored by central defender Cedric Kante and talismanic midfielder Seydou Keita, Mali's mainly inexperienced team rebounded from a 2-0 loss to Ghana in the group stage to stubbornly come from behind to oust co-host Gabon in a penalty shootout to reach the semifinals.

Ivory Coast has swept aside everyone in front of them, most recently cruising to a 3-0 win over co-host Equatorial Guinea in the quarterfinals despite a partisan crowd in Malabo.

"We have six finals to play. Tomorrow is our fifth final," Zokora said, explaining how the Ivorians had stayed focussed on their ultimate goal. "We have a very big ambition. I have played five African Cups and have never won.

"Of course we have very big players like Yaya Toure and (Didier) Drogba but we have never won a trophy in Africa together. I think today is our best chance to take this trophy."

Along with Ivory Coast's winning run this year without conceding a goal, it has also dominated its previous encounters with Mali. Ivory Coast has won seven of the last nine meetings, with two draws. The Malians last beat Ivory Coast in 1995.

"The numbers are a reflection of real team quality, a team with talent and with a very great potential," Giresse said of Ivory Coast. "That's it. We'll stop there."

His opposite number wasn't interested in previous form, however.

"We respect the adversary, no matter who (it is). We always have this attitude of respecting the opponent. Some big teams, so called front-runners, have already gone home," Zahoui said. "We know what awaits us tomorrow."

Ivory Coast had "good but not excellent" news on striker Salomon Kalou's recovery from a hamstring injury, Zahoui said, adding the Chelsea forward was still doubtful for the semifinals.

Giresse said there were no serious fitness concerns for Mali or Keita, who was spotted with his left ankle strapped up at training. There was only fatigue after their quarterfinal win over Gabon went through 120 minutes and to a shootout, the coach said.