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Africa Cup of Nations: After making disastrous start, host Ivory Coast is on a roll under interim coach with win over Senegal

If you’re the defending champion heading into the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), the chances are you know that recent history isn’t going to be on your side.

On Monday, current title holder Senegal was eliminated on penalties in the round of 16 by host nation Ivory Coast after 120 minutes of nail-biting action at a deafening Charles Konan Banny de Yamoussoukro Stadium.

Senegal’s elimination means no defending champion has made it past the first knockout round of an AFCON since Egypt won its third straight title in 2010.

“We had a difficult start, conceding an early goal, but I told the players at half-time to keep playing the same way, not get confused,” Ivory Coast interim coach Emerse Fae told reporters after the match.

Of all the stress, trials and tribulations that come with being thrust into the head coach position mid-tournament, Fae said his habit of taking a nap had been interrupted given his new responsibilities.

“There was a lot of pressure before the match, and match day was too long for me,” he said. “I couldn’t nap as usual, thinking about all scenarios. If I said there was no pressure, I would be lying,”

However, for more than 80 minutes it looked as though Senegal was going to rip up the record books after Habib Diallo turned home Sadio Mané’s cross after just four minutes.

Ivory Coast only squeaked through to the knockout stages as one of the best third-place teams after a dismal group stage performance, the nadir coming in a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Equatorial Guinea as the Elephants suffered their biggest ever defeat on home soil.

But the team certainly improved as Monday’s match progressed and was fulling deserving of its equalizer just four minutes before full-time, even if it needed a VAR intervention.

Ivorian players and fans were incensed that referee Pierre Atcho failed to award a penalty after Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy brought down former Arsenal winger Pepe in the box.

Senegal continued the poor performances of defending champions at AFCON. - Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images
Senegal continued the poor performances of defending champions at AFCON. - Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

But after being sent to the pitch-side monitor to review the incident, Atcho reversed his decision and awarded the penalty, which Franck Kessié buried with confidence.

The stadium was now at fever pitch as the 20,000 fans inside the stadium began to believe.

There was nothing to separate the two teams during a nerve-shredding 30 minutes of extra-time, so the tie was to be settled via a penalty shootout.

Senegal’s Moussa Niakhaté was the only player to miss during the shootout, allowing Kessié to make himself the hero for a second time as he dispatched the winning spot-kick to send his team into the quarterfinals.

It is certainly rather surprising that this team in turmoil has now made it this far in the competition.

Former Ivory Coast coach Jean-Louis Gasset was remarkably sacked during the tournament after that 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea, as the team stood on the brink of an early elimination on home soil. Only Morocco’s 1-0 victory over Zambia spared the team a premature exit.

However, Fae has now masterminded an unlikely win over the reigning champion and a team that cruised through the group stages with three wins from three.

“Qualifying after Morocco’s win gave us confidence. We beat Senegal and eliminated them; morale is good,” said Fae.

“We must not stop here; we must continue working, maintain this morale, and keep playing match by match,” the coach asserted.

Ivory Coast will now play either Mali or Burkina Faso in the quarterfinals.

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