RECIFE, Brazil, June 12 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure is struggling to shake off a hamstring injury in time for their World Cup Group C opener against Japan on Saturday, with his likely absence compounded by the return to fitness of Blue Samurai captain Makoto Hasebe.
The three-times African player of the year picked up the injury in April playing for club side Manchester City as they went on to win the English Premier League title.
He joined up late with the Ivory Coast squad after undergoing treatment in Qatar and missed the two warm-up matches in the United States where the Africans lost 2-1 to Bosnia but beat El Salvador by the same score.
Toure's absence for the match against Japan, their likely main rivals for a knockout berth with Colombia tipped to win the group and Greece expected to struggle, would be a huge blow for the Ivorians.
The 31-year-old's powerful bursts from midfield, leadership and goal-scoring ability are enough to give sleepless nights to a defensively liable Japanese side.
"We will try and do everything to ensure he can play," Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi told reporters this week ahead of Saturday's clash at the Pernambuco arena in Recife.
Serey Die is expected to fill the void if Toure fails to make it and his robust style would help give the weak defence of the Africans better protection.
Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni has similar defensive headaches with warm up wins over Zambia and Costa Rica earlier this month again showcasing their inability to keep clean sheets.
Hasebe's return from a long standing knee injury to protect the vulnerable back four is a welcome boost and he is expected to slot in alongside slow, but steady playmaker Yushito Endo.
Zaccheroni might be tempted to give Hasebe a few days rest, though, with the strong form of Hotaru Yamaguchi offering a more than capable replacement and pushing hard for a starting spot in the match between two attack-minded teams.
"Ivory Coast are strong in attack but on the other hand they are a bit flimsy in defence," Hasebe told reporters this week after declaring himself fully fit.
"We are both attacking teams and I think it will be the team with the highest levels of concentration that will come out on top."
Japan's record against African opposition is good, with the Asian champions beating Cameroon first up in South Africa four years ago upon making the last 16 of the World Cup, and they have targeted a first quarter-final appearance in Brazil.
However, the Ivorians beat Japan 2-0 the last time the two met in a friendly in Switzerland prior to the South Africa World Cup, a game in which Didier Drogba suffered an elbow injury that hampered his participation at the finals.
The 36-year-old Galatasaray striker is a focal part of the Ivorian golden generation knowing this will be their final chance of making the knockout stages after group stage exits at the previous two World Cups following difficult draws.
Despite his advancing years, he is expected to start in a probable three man forward line along with Salomon Kalou and Gervinho. (Writing by Patrick Johnston in Brasilia; editing by Justin Palmer)
- Sports & Recreation
- Ivory Coast
- Yaya Toure