The media’s narrative frames for World Cup showdowns usually pit one side’s star goal-scorer against the other: Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Didier Drogba, and so on. But the most important player on the field on Tuesday was Cote D’Ivoire’s Yaya Toure, the imperious midfield general who repeatedly won the ball for his side, dictated the play with his passing so that his team kept its shape and was able to dominate Portugal in that all-important sphere. This is a far tighter and more disciplined Ivoirian team than we’ve ever seen, and Yaya Toure — rather than Drogba — was its key man today. And the team’s hopes of progressing will depend not only on whether ace striker Drogba recovers from his broken arm, but on the abilities of Barcelona’s Toure to dictate the game from just in front of his defense, as he did against Portugual.
Sure, either Ronaldo or Drogba is more than capable of producing a moment of magic that settles a deadlocked game (a brilliant free kick over a defensive wall, a burst of speed or strength to cut through a tight defense, an outrageous piece of skill or a convincing dive that fools a referee into awarding a foul — as Ronaldo did repeatedly, although Drogba’s broken arm may have restrained his own diving habit). But more often than not, games are won and lost in midfield where the ball must be won and where the platform for attacks must be built. And so often, the most important player to a team’s result is a central midfielder capable of shielding his own defense, winning the ball and uses his passing to dictate the play, ensuring that his team keeps its shape and moves to penetrate the opposing defense when the opportunity arises. France’s run to the last World Cup final was credited to the creative genius of Zinedine Zidane, but equally important was the central midfield combination of Patrick Viera and Claude Makelele. When Spain won Euro 2008, the plaudits went to strikers David Villa and Fernando Torres, but they wouldn’t have seen much of the ball without the work of defensive midfielder Marcos Senna.
Yaya Toure played that role against Portugal, his natural defensive midfield partner, Didier Zokora of Sevilla, being used as a makeshift center back alongside Yaya’s brother Kolo — a role in which he was very effective. The importance of Cheikh Tiote and Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue to the midfield battle shouldn’t be understated, however — the Elephants pressed hard whenever Portugal was in possession, and prevented Ronaldo’s men from finding a rhythm, or even for the most part, the space for Ronaldo, Deco and Danny (replaced, later by Simao) to run the ball directly at the defense.
Their excellent positional play also allowed for variation, one of them always dropping back to allow either right back Guy Demel or center back Kolo Toure to join the attack. Absent Drogba, save for a brief cameo in which he was clearly holding back from his full physical game to protect his broken limb, the goal threat was lacking — as much as Gervinho offered pace to get behind the defense on the left, Solomon Kalou is too slight to offer a target for crosses, and Dindane had a poor game. But if Drogba returns, Dindane will drop to the bench, allow Kalou to use his pace to best effect out wide. If they had lost today, the Ivoirians would face a Herculean challenge to go through to the next round. They didn’t lose, and looked the more likely to win. As things stand, their prospects of going through to the knockout stages by faring better than Portugal does in the matches both must play against Brazil and North Korea are looking good. And if they do, they’ll owe a big debt to Yaya Toure.