Red Devil Bailly seeks success with Ivory Coast
Recent Manchester United recruit Eric Bailly is part of the Ivory Coast squad hoping this weekend to secure a place at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Gabon.
The 22-year-old centre-back joined the English Premier League outfit during the close season from Spanish La Liga side Villarreal in a reported $43.7 million (38.4 million euros) deal.
Bailly was the first signing by new Red Devils manager Jose Mourinho and has helped his club win three consecutive league matches at the start of the season.
On Saturday in Bouake his attention will switch to ensuring the ‘Elephants’ get a chance to defend the African title they won last year after a penalty shootout against Ghana.
Ivory Coast, ranked third in Africa behind Algeria and Ghana, need a draw against Sierra Leone to win Group I while a shock loss would eliminate the two-time champions.
Bailly is a likely starter, but Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure and striker Wilfried Bony were not chosen by 57-year-old French coach Michel Dussuyer.
Midfielder Toure, not a first choice since the close-season arrival of manager Pep Guardiola, last played for his country in the 2015 Cup of Nations final 19 months ago.
Bony, who has joined Stoke City on a season-long loan, is missing from an attack that does have a Premier League presence in the shape of Max Alain Gradel from Bournemouth.
Another notable absentee from the strike force is Salomon Kalou of German Bundesliga outfit Hertha Berlin, who is mourning the death of his father and an aunt.
Sierra Leone, who sit 19 places below Ivory Coast in the African rankings, prepared in Accra under their Ghana-born coach Sellas Tettah to avoid pressure from supporters at home.
“My squad includes many young footballers who have never competed at the Cup of Nations and tackling Ivory Coast is a massive challenge for them,” he told reporters.
“All I am asking of them is that they play to their limit and when the final whistle blows they can look at each other and know they did their country proud.”
The teams fought a dour 0-0 first round draw last year in a match moved from Sierra Leone to Nigeria because of the Ebola virus.
Ivory Coast are among 14 nations chasing six places, and hoping to join already-qualified Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Morocco, Senegal and Zimbabwe plus hosts Gabon.
Democratic Republic of Congo hold a two-point lead over neighbours Central African Republic so a draw before an expected 80,000 Kinshasa crowd will ensure the hosts progress from Group B.
Stephane Sessegnon-inspired Benin visit fellow unbeaten Group C side Mali needing maximum points to be certain of qualifying.
If Burkina Faso and Uganda use home advantage to defeat Botswana and the Comoros respectively, both will secure finals places.
The Burkinabe will top the standings and the Ugandans will claim a place for the first time since 1978 as one of the best two runners-up.
Group A is the most intriguing with leaders Liberia, Tunisia (10 points each) and Claude Le Roy-coached Togo (eight) all contenders for top spot.
A win for Tunisia or Liberia in Monastir will settle the issue, but if that match ends goalless, Togo can sneak through provided they overcome whipping boys Djibouti in Lome.
Other countries with mathematical chances of qualifying as one of the best two runners-up include Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Mauritania and Swaziland.
The Cup of Nations draw is scheduled for October 19 in Libreville and the tournament will be played between January 14 and February 5.
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