Ivory Coast, Zambia set for compelling Cup climax
The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations has enjoyed more than its fair share of upsets but Ivory Coast are praying Sunday's final with Zambia will go according to the formbook.
The Elephants will start as warm favourites as they seek to banish once and for all the tag of 'chokers' applied to Dider Drogba and company after disappointing campaigns in 2008 and 2010.
Zambia, who have reached the final on a wave of emotion as they honoured their comrades who perished in the 1993 plane crash off the Libreville coast, have a tough task ahead of them.
Not only are they a yawning 63 rungs below their rivals in FIFA's world rankings but Herve Renard's men will also be trying to become the first team to score a goal against Ivory Coast since the start of battle three weeks ago.
Ivory Coast boast an enviable record in Equatorial Guinea/Gabon, not only have they won all their five matches but they have also avoided conceding a single goal, to nine scored.
Zambia, who were runners-up the year after the plane tragedy, have scored nine, but conceded three, and won four of their games and drawn one.
A compelling contest is in prospect as the Ivorians target a second title after their lone success 20 years ago, while the Copper Bullets are targeting their first.
Under coach Francois Zahoui the Elephants have forgone the flashy brilliance of years gone by and adopted a more pragmatic, 'results are what count' style.
And Zahoui's approach has worked a treat, as his men avoided the same fate as the likes of competition co-favourites Ghana, knocked out by Zambia in Wednesday's semi-final, and the trio of shock first round casualties Senegal, Tunisia and Morocco.
An impregnable defence coupled with forwards who can strike at will are the cornerstones of Ivory Coast's march to Sunday's final, says Salomon Kalou.
The Chelsea star said: "Our aim has been to not let in any goals.
"And with the strikers we've got, at any moment we can make the difference."
That was plain for all to see on Wednesday when Arsenal star Gervinho raced from the halfway line to score a superb solo goal to down valiant Mali.
"Our goals can come from anywhere," added Kalou. "From Yaya (Toure), Gervais (Gervinho), Didier (Drogba), myself...
"We can score at any moment and that's an advantage that we have on lots of other teams at this Nations Cup."
Zahoui commented: "Happily our defence has been very mature and solid since the beginning of the competition.
"After our past failures we knew that as long as we don't concede any goals we can make the difference up front. Our ambitions remain in place."
But despite the Ivorians' star-studded squad and experience, Zahoui is wary of Zambia.
"They are a young, very buoyant side who play good football. They attack and cause problems for any team they come across."
On Thursday, Zambia arrived in Libreville and made their way to the nearest mainland spot to the site of the 1993 plane crash 500 metres off the Gabonese coast where the national team was wiped out.
Emotion is a strong motivating factor, and Zambia have plenty of credit in that deparmtent as they look to honour their fallen comrades.
Only former African Footballer of the Year Kalusha Bwalya avoided one of the great African football tragedies because he was based in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven and travelled directly to Dakar from Europe.
Bwalya, now president of the Zambian Football Federation, was among the group paying an emotional homage to the dead on Thursday.
"It is no coincedence that we are here (in Libreville) today, we have worked hard as a team.
"I pray that their souls may forever rest in peace and that God will give us the strength and the courage to fulfil our dreams.... and theirs."
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