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Football: Elephants can start World Cup stampede; AFRICAN NATIONS CUP FINAL.

Byline: IAN COYNE

THEY say that he who laughs last laughs longest, and Ivory Coast are worth backing at 13-5 to earn a swift revenge for their Group A defeat by Egypt when the sides meet again in this afternoon's African Nations Cup final in Cairo.

The Pharoahs beat Ivory Coast 3-1 at the same venue on January 28, but the circumstances for this match are quite different and today's encounter could have a completely different outcome.

Unlike the hosts, the Elephants were already through to the last eight when the sides went head-to-head in the final round of group fixtures - they had already beaten Morocco and Libya.

Coach Henri Michel opted to leave out key men such as centre-back Kolo Toure, midfielders Gilles Yapi Yapo and Didier Zokora, and striker Didier Drogba, all of whom can be expected to start today.

And though that strategy of resting men to keep them fresh for the knockout rounds looked to have backfired - defeat left Ivory Coast facing a tough route to the final - the west African country have been equal to the task of getting to the endgame the hard way.

They say the best teams only get up to speed as tournaments progress and games get harder, and that has certainly been the case with Ivory Coast.

Widely tipped for glory after qualifying for the World Cup at the expense of Cameroon and Egypt, Ivory Coast were frankly a bit of a disappointment in the group stage. Stubborn but unexceptional, they looked unlikely to live up to the hype which surrounded them.

However, Michel's team have come into their own in the knockout rounds.

They held their own after a war of attrition with a very capable Cameroon outfit to reach the semis on penalties, and pounced on a Nigerian defensive error to edge out the Super Eagles in the semis.

The absence of Egypt striker Mido, dismissed by coach Hassan Shehata following the embarrassing touchline row between the pair when the Spurs forward was subbed in the semi win over Senegal, has to aid Ivory Coast's chances of avoiding conceding.

And in the solid and tactically adept Zokora the Elephants have a midfield enforcer capable of keeping Egypt playmaker Mohamed Barakat from dominating proceedings. Michel will also draw confidence from his team's superiority over Egypt in World Cup qualifying.

Ivory Coast beat Egypt home and away on the way to securing a place in the finals, so they are unlikely to be intimidated by the hosts' home crowd.

They have already been well backed at big prices for World Cup glory, and can be expected to shorten again after today.

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Didier Drogba wheels away after scoring the goal which put Ivory Coast into the African Nations Cup final
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 10, 2006
Words:475
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