Drogba prepares for last chance with Ivory Coast
It may be Didier Drogba's last chance to win the African Cup of Nations as Ivory Coast once again begins its quest for a long-awaited continental title.
The 33-year-old Chelsea striker hopes to mark a decade on his national team with triumph in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea after the major disappointments of 2006, '08 and '10.
In the absence of Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria, Drogba and the highly rated Ivorian squad may never have a better opportunity as the tournament favorite prepares to start its campaign against outsider Sudan in Group B on Sunday.
In back-to-back matches on the second day of the African Cup, Burkina Faso and Angola will also meet at Estadio de Malabo on Sunday, with both aiming to be the Ivorians' main challenger in the group.
The focus will undoubtedly be on top-ranked African team Ivory Coast, however, and its attempt to win for the first time since 1992.
And with Drogba and some of his experienced team mates heading toward the end of their international careers, this campaign has taken on added urgency. Alongside Drogba, defender Kolo Toure and midfielder Didier Zokora may not make another African Cup.
''We have great players so we have to win something, we have to win this Cup of Nations,'' midfielder Cheick Tiote said. ''Every time there is an African tournament, people tell us that we are favorites to win. But when you look at our trophy cabinet there is nothing there. Absolutely nothing.''
On Sunday, Ivory Coast's array of big names - including Drogba, Zokora, forward Gervinho of Arsenal and Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure - will come up against a team that hasn't won a game at the finals in 42 years. And yet Sudan still has as many titles as the Ivorians: one.
This is only the fourth tournaments that Sudan has qualified for since it was crowned champion in 1970. And after a 3-0 loss to Tunisia and a 0-0 draw with co-host Gabon in warmup matches, Mohamed Abdallah's team has been given little chance of upsetting Ivory Coast in the group opener.
But Ivory Coast has disappointed before when success has been predicted, and coach Francois Zahoui will hope his experienced stars have learnt from semifinal and quarterfinal exits at the last two championships.
''I think the 2012 Cup of Nations will be very difficult, perhaps even more difficult than previous editions,'' Drogba said.
Burkina Faso's match with Angola is less easy to predict, although 2006 World Cup qualifier Angola starts as favorite against a team whose buildup was complicated by eligibility issues over Cameroon-born defender Herve Zengue.
Zengue was cleared to play but didn't make Burkina Faso's final squad for the tournament.
Burkina Faso's Alain Traore of Auxerre and Angola's FC Porto forward, Djalma, are the outstanding players in each team and should lead both attacks in Equatorial Guinea's capital.
But Group B's second game is likely to only serve as an indicator of which team will qualify for the quarterfinals behind Ivory Coast.