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Hosts Ivory Coast face forward problems ahead of Cup of Nations opener

HOSTS Ivory Coast will have to do without striker Sebastian Haller in the Africa Cup of Nations opener against Guinea Bissau as he continues his recovery from an ankle injury, coach Jean-Louis Gasset said.

The availability of the 29-year-old Borussia Dortmund striker for their second game in Group A against Nigeria next week was also up in the air, the coach added.

There were also fitness concerns for forward Nicolas Pepe, who was recalled to the squad after being dropped last year but is struggling with a knee injury, Gasset said.

“Pepe played 30 minutes in last Saturday’s friendly (a 5-1 win over Sierra Leone) but is still not fully fit. He suffered a knee injury at Trabzonspor last month and we have been bringing him along slowly.”

The Ivorians remain overwhelming favourites against their small West African opponents, with increasing expectations about their chances of success in the tournament.

Gasset had never been to the continent before taking the job but 20 months on from his appointment he is charged with winning the Cup of Nations for the home nation.

The 70-year-old, with extensive Ligue 1 experience and formerly an assistant coach of France under Laurent Blanc, said it had been a swift learning experience, but an exciting challenge and he was relishing the opportunity.

“I want to savour the event and appreciate the environment and the experience,” he told a press conference on Friday.

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“We feel the pressure, but I don’t think it’s an additional pressure. My objective is to turn this pressure into something positive, a drive to give us confidence. This pressure has a very good aspect to it and we must take advantage of it and this is the message I’ve been giving my squad.”

Gasset warned, however, of the quality of their opponents, who have yet to win a game at the finals and are 103rd in the FIFA rankings, 54 places below the Ivorians.

“We want to start well but with due respect to our opponents, who are very dangerous at counter attacks but we need to dominate the game,” Gasset said.

“They have beaten Nigeria in the qualifiers and we know they have good players especially Mama Balde, who now plays at Lyon,” he added.

By MARK GLEESON

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