RECIFE, Brazil, (Reuters) – Didier Drogba came off the bench to again show his inspirational qualities as the Ivory Coast recovered to beat Japan 2-1 on Saturday and boost their bid to reach the World Cup knockout stages for the first time.
It had shaped up to be another disappointing occasion for the African side, who frequently flatter to deceive, when Keisuke Honda powered Japan into a first-half lead.
Yet Drogba’s introduction was swiftly followed by quickfire headed goals from Wilfried Bony and Gervinho in the space of three second-half minutes that turned the match on its head.
The victory at the Pernambuco arena moved the Ivorians level on three points at the top of Group C with Colombia, who beat Greece 3-0 earlier on Saturday.
With coaches so often judged on their ability to make brave decisions, Ivory Coast’s Sabri Lamouchi put his neck on the line by leaving out Drogba, for so long a talismanic presence in the lineup, in favour of the in-form Bony.
He claimed after the match it was partly due to the striker’s lack of fitness, but he also admitted it was a tactical decision.
It initially looked a poor call as Japan had the better of the first half, but the striker’s appearance proved decisive in wrestling the momentum towards the Africans.
Within seconds of coming on he had driven at the heart of a swiftly retreating Japanese back four, inspiring panic in the massed blue ranks that had been previously unthreatened.
“When Didier Drogba came on the pitch everything changed,” Frenchman Lamouchi told reporters. “When you have this calibre of player on the pitch you are very lucky.
“Of course, he was frustrated to be on the bench but if you saw the joy when he finished the match… he is a champion.”
At 36 years old, Drogba is nearing the end of a career where he has made a habit of bullying defences into submission. Nonetheless, he had the look of a man who feels he still has unfinished business playing for his country.
While he has led them to the last two World Cups and five straight African Nations Cups, his international career has been marked by frequent and bitter disappointment, typified by the Ivorians’ failure to emerge from their group in 2006 and 2010.