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Will it be this time? Ivory Coast longs for 1st title in 20 years as Drogba runs out of time

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JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's second big football party in three years will be all about whether Didier Drogba and Ivory Coast will finally be celebrating when the lights go out — again — at Soccer City.

While South Africa's World Cup and the last two European Championships brought unrestrained joy for Spain, the African Cup of Nations has been increasingly depressing for this continent's best team, which lost two of the last four finals in agonizing penalty shootouts that left the richly-talented Ivorians shattered at the very end.

With Drogba's career winding down, 2013 is likely the last chance for international success for the Premier League- and Champions League-winning striker, who will be nearly 37 the next time the Cup of Nations comes around.

Ghana's form indicates that it will challenge and defending champion Zambia backed the core of its victorious 2012 team to retain the title it surprisingly won in emotionally charged circumstances in Gabon less than 12 months ago, when Ivory Coast and Drogba again failed to clinch a first title in 20 years in the final act of a tournament they dominated.

The top-ranked African team is still the standout candidate for overall success but beware the unpredictable nature of Africa's always colorful, sometimes chaotic football celebration.

"We have been the favourites before," Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi said, "only now we must try and do it on the field."

Tournament debutant Cape Verde could surprise, Nigeria could realize its potential, or South Africa could be carried along on a wave of home support like it was in 1996, when the Cup of Nations was last in the country and Bafana Bafana won its only title.

Realistically, though, with host South Africa hampered by an under-prepared team, the North African trio of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia recently inconsistent, and Nigeria and Zambia not as impressive now as previous teams, Ivory Coast and Ghana are obvious picks to meet in the final at the 2010 World Cup final stadium in Soweto on Feb. 10.

For South Africa, a place in the semifinals is the minimum demanded by its federation and fans, while it also has to meet the Confederation of African Football's expectations of one of the best Nations Cups ever given the existing infrastructure left by the World Cup.

It was why South Africa was the immediate choice to replace troubled Libya as 2013 host.

The country won't find it as easy as FIFA's big production three years ago, with ticket sales slow and local organizers conceding they don't have the same budget to work with this time round. Perennial problems for the biannual African Cup.

Despite the world-class venues, the sight of empty seats at matches may again blight Africa's top tournament, which is being played in successive years to avoid future clashes with the World Cup and European Championship.

"With our limited resources, we can only do a certain amount," head organizer Mvuzo Mbebe said.

On the field, Ivory Coast built toward 2013 in the same imposing manner it did for 2012, when it lost painfully to the Zambians in a penalty shootout that went to 18 spot kicks.

The most impressive through qualifying again, it sailed past Egypt 4-2 in its last warm-up this week when it didn't even need to start Drogba or fellow forward Salomon Kalou — or use 2012 African player of the year Yaya Toure at all.

Under French coach Lamouchi, the Ivorian camp also avoided the regular African Cup complications revolving around big-name players and their commitments to club versus country at a time when the European leagues are in full swing.

The same can't be said for Ghana, which excluded Marseille winger Andre Ayew when he didn't turn up to a training camp on time from France. Kevin-Prince Boateng, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien all were not available for selection, choosing AC Milan and Real Madrid over Ghana.

Ghana does, however, have an emerging group of promising youngsters that coach Kwesi Appiah hopes to blend with the relative experience of captain and lead forward Asamoah Gyan.

In the next tier of contenders, Zambia lost three friendlies in a row before ending its preparations with successive goalless draws. But vibrant French coach Herve Renard, who was a key factor in Zambia's success a year ago, insisted the 2013 squad was better than 2012 with the retention of most of the stars and the addition of FC Utrecht striker Jacob Mulenga and FC Porto defender Emmanuel Mbola.

Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi's strict approach has seen the Super Eagles — with Chelsea pair John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses — return to the African Cup after missing out in 2012.

South Africa doesn't have its most valuable player anymore after Steven Pienaar surprisingly retired from internationals and the home team was left scrambling after changing coaches following poor results.

"I don't think we need to kid ourselves," new coach Gordon Igesund said. "We all know that circumstances put us in this situation. We never ever said it was going to be an easy task."

South Africa and Morocco will likely battle for the top spot in Group A against Angola and Cape Verde, a country of just 500,000 people but which qualified for its first major tournament by eliminating four-time African champion Cameroon.

Zambia and Nigeria are favoured to qualify for the quarterfinals from Group B ahead of Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. Ghana has Mali, Congo and Niger to deal with in Group C.

Ivory Coast will have to deal with Tunisia, Algeria and Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo in Group D to have a chance at that long-awaited title.

Adebayor was set to play in South Africa and end his boycott of the national team after his prolonged and public disagreement with the Togolese federation was resolved when the Tottenham striker was convinced to return in a meeting with the country's president.

Although it's some way off the World Cup, the African Cup does mean that much for some countries.

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