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Brazil, Ivory Coast stars must step up

June 20, 2010
Latham By Brent Latham
ESPN.com
(Archive)

In the most anticipated match of the first round, one of Africa's brightest hopes takes on the five-time world champion at Soccer City. The game promises an unforgettable atmosphere, with plenty of on-the-field storylines to follow.

What's on the line

Little was decided in the first round of games in the "Group of Death," leaving both teams jockeying for position. Ivory Coast would be thrilled with a tie, putting the squad in good position to advance with a win in its final group match against North Korea.

Brazil will greatly prefer a win in this match, which would assure a place in the second round before its showdown with Portugal. Anything less than victory for the Brazilians would leave them precariously perched entering the final match, and facing the possibility of the unthinkable: a first-round knockout.

Style and tactics

Dunga has been lining his team up in a nominal 4-5-1, but any defensive connotation normally associated with a five-man midfield is misplaced here. The formation is more precisely a 4-2-3-1, with a three-man attacking line centered by Kaka, who supports striker Luis Fabiano. That still doesn't stop all 10 Brazilian field players from getting into the attack, with wingbacks Maicon and Michel Bastos particularly dangerous going forward.

For their part, Eriksson's Elephants looked tactically impressive in their opening game. Lined up in a productive but disciplined 4-3-3, Ivory Coast managed to balance attack and defensive play more effectively than it has in the recent past.

Players to watch

Kaka, Brazil. Brazil's playmaker is one of a handful of stars under a ton of pressure to perform at the World Cup. He fell short of expectations in the opening match, and Brazil will need him to shine against the Elephants.

Robinho, Brazil. The South Americans' most effective creative force last time out, Robinho looks intent on demonstrating his quality at the World Cup and showing up his shrinking body of detractors in Europe.

Julio Cesar, Brazil. The goalkeeper didn't have much to do against North Korea but did let in a late goal that could prove costly if the group comes down to tiebreakers. If Brazil is to make a title run, Julio Cesar will have a lot more work the rest of the way, starting with this match.

Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast. Few who have set foot on the continent would dispute Drogba's status as Africa's biggest star and collective football hero. With the striker primed to reappear in Ivory Coast's starting lineup for this monumental match, this is a chance for Drogba to permanently inscribe his name in the annals of African football.

Gervinho, Ivory Coast. With the return of his center forward, Eriksson faces some decisions in arranging his wingers. Whether it's Gervinho or Salomon Kalou on the left, the matchup with Brazilian right back Maicon will be a great one to watch.

Didier Zokora, Ivory Coast. Zokora lined up in the center of defense against Portugal. In that spot against Brazil, the converted midfielder's poise and grit -- along with that of Yaya Toure in center midfield -- will be key to Ivory Coast's aspirations.

What we can expect

With the World Cup heating up, expect a great match that opens the door for more entertaining play for the rest of the tournament. This game has been billed as the most intriguing of the first round for all the tremendous subplots, including the compelling "home-continent stars versus the all-time great soccer nation" theme. Add to the mix Drogba's return, an Ivory Coast team that finally looks capable of playing up to its potential and the pressure of the Group of Death, and you've got the recipe for an unforgettable match.

The play on the field will need to live up to the advance billing, but there's plenty of potential for it to do so. Expect electric attacking moments from both sides, plenty of offensive soccer and flair, and at least a few goals. And at Soccer City on a Sunday evening -- the best possible venue and time for a match that will captivate much of the world -- you'll get 90 minutes of the most memorable atmosphere this World Cup will offer in the bargain.

Intangibles

It's difficult to overestimate what this match means to Ivory Coast, and to Africa as a whole. With African teams struggling to make an impact on the field thus far on their home continent, an Ivory Coast win could turn the tide and help redeem African soccer. But Brazil has never lost or even conceded a goal in five matches against African teams at the World Cup. So a victory for the "home" team would likely be talked about throughout Africa for decades to come.

Who'll win

Ivory Coast 2, Brazil 1. Ivory Coast rides a wave of optimism into this monumental match, knowing they have the chance to make history in Johannesburg. Brazil can't be accused of overlooking the Elephants, but there's just no way the five-time champs can get up for this game the way the talented Ivorians will for a once-in-a-lifetime moment for their nation and all of Africa.

Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.