The good news is this: Technically, the Ivory Coast can become the second African team to book a spot in the round of 16 in this year’s World Cup.
The bad news? Not only do the Elephants have to win, not only does Portugal have to lose, but the Ivorians must make up nine goals on the Portuguese in the process.
Oh, is that all?
So Sven-Goran Eriksson’s men certainly have their work cut out for them as they head into Friday’s Group G finale at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit (10:00 a.m. EDT, ESPN2 & ESPN3.com).
Should Brazil (who will be missing Kaka after the star playmaker was shown two yellow cards against the Ivory Coast Sunday) beat the Portuguese just 1-0, the Elephants would need to beat the Koreans by eight goals.
How common is that? There have only been six games in the history of the World Cup that ended up 8-0 or greater, the last Germany’s 8-0 rout of Saudi Arabia in 2002. (But then, how many times – a la Luis Fabiano – has a double-handball led to a goal? Um…if you’re Irish, no need to answer that.)
Eriksson knows the odds are against his talented side.
“It's a strange situation in the group. I think we have played great football, but it's extremely difficult, you can't tell your players to go out and score eight or nine goals,” he told reporters Thursday. “We are going to try our best. It's very unlikely but we are going to try. We want to leave this World Cup with our heads held high. We just want to give it a go.”
The Ivorians have, at times, looked competent and dangerous. Against Portugal they held the balance of play. They were outclassed – and in the case of Fabiano, out handled – against Brazil though there isn’t any great shame in that. But in both games the Elephants have let mistakes be their undoing, be it lacking the requisite poise in front of goal, or not coming up with the key tackle defensively.
“We needed to be a bit more clinical and do a better job of finishing off some of the counter-attacks we had,” defender Kolo Toure said. “We've got no margin for error, we need to be more compact and put away our chances.”
The North Koreans, making their first finals appearance since 1966, were strong defensively for a game and a half, but imploded against Portugal in the second half, allowing six goals in what so far is the tournament’s most lopsided game.
“Tactically speaking, we fell apart and we couldn't block their attacks,” manager Kim John Hun said. “It was my fault for not playing the right strategy and that is why we conceded a lot of goals.”
Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba will start again despite his broken right elbow not being completely healed. The Elephants will need to find a way to get the Chelsea hitman involved after he had just 17 touches of the ball against Brazil, though he did score the only goal of the game for the Ivorians on a well-placed snap header.
Eriksson will likely support Drogba with his Chelsea teammate Soloman Kalou and could well start Gervinho, the Lille forward who played so well against Portugal but only came on as a second-half substitute against Brazil, though he did look dangerous even then. But the former Lazio and Manchester City manager has remained calm (certainly calmer than his country’s fans), despite his team’s rather dire predicament.
He has stated he wouldn’t make whole-sale changes to the starting lineup just to chase goals, and has urged his team to be calm and intelligent and not to throw caution to the wind in an attempt to make the scoreboard resemble the one on Court 18 during John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s epic Wimbledon showdown.
“We are going to make some changes in the team, but not a revolution, no need to do that,” he said. “We have been doing okay in these last two games. I want to give a chance to a couple of others in the beginning. You can't just attack with everything you have. North Korea will punish you if you do. We have to be disciplined and defend well. We are going to try to play and, of course, we are going to try to attack, absolutely.”
While that may sound like good news, the bad news remains clear: no matter how much the Elephants attack, it will take something miraculous for the Ivorians to advance.