Didier Drogba: Saturday Benching Was Blessing in Disguise for Ivory Coast

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIJanuary 26, 2013

RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 22: Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast during the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations match between Ivory Coast and Togo from Royal Bafokeng Stadium on January 22, 2012 in Rustenburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)
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Benching Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba to start Saturday's critical Africa Cup of Nations fixture against Tunisia wouldn't seem like the soundest strategy for manager Sabri Lamouchi. The bold strategy paid off, however, and turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the squad.

The reason that the longtime Chelsea star striker wasn't in was partially due to his struggles against Togo in the opening match, which the Elephants barely won by a score of 2-1. He had just three days of rest prior to that fixture (h/t Pro Soccer Talk) and was simply fatigued.

As risky as the move was, Lamouchi still pulled the trigger with three points already in the bag. The Elephants now sit atop Group D thanks to a 3-0 victory over the Eagles of Carthage, keyed by a strong effort on the attack that Drogba didn't figure prominently into.

Extremely talented winger Gervinho, who plays for the English Premier League squad Arsenal, flashed his ability with a phenomenal goal to open the scoring in the 21st minute. Gervinho also scored the winner in the fixture with Togo.

Drogba didn't sub in until the 68th minute, as the attack began to stagnate and was in need of a spark. Although he didn't score, the Elephants were able to free up enough space to blow the game open at the end thanks to goals by Yaya Toure and substitute Didier Ya Konan in the closing few minutes.

As the Ivory Coast's all-time national team leader with 59 goals in 93 appearances, it was certainly an encouraging sign that the Elephants were able to thrive on offense without too much assistance from their most prolific scorer in Drogba.

Now that Ivory Coast are guaranteed a spot in the knockout face of the Cup of Nations, they have a golden tune-up opportunity on Jan. 30 against the eliminated Algerian national team.

The Greens have nothing but pride to play for next Wednesday, while the Elephants can tinker with strategy and continue to integrate Drogba back into the lineup at their own liberty.

The great news, too, is that any contribution from Drogba moving forward will be an added bonus to the strong effort that the Elephants are already getting offensively.

Based on the unprecedented production he has had for his national team, Drogba should only become more of a force as the tournament wears on.

This is a confident, aggressively attacking Ivory Coast squad that is sporting fine form at the moment and is also seeking revenge. At last year's Cup, a scoreless tie in regulation led to penalty kicks, where the Elephants were edged out 8-7 by reigning champion Zimbabwe.

Drogba tied the tournament lead with three goals, but missed a spot kick in the final (h/t BBC). Gervinho—who missed the final PK—has already found the net twice in a redemptive streak.

Not only will this club be a major factor in the knockout phase, but Ivory Coast should be considered a strong contender to win the trophy as a finalist for the fourth time. And Drogba's eventual return to the starting lineup will only enhance those chances.