Ivorians better equipped to weather tough group

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Even with Sven-Goran Eriksson's experienced hand at the tiller, Ivory Coast must be wondering if the footballing gods are intent on another early exit from the biggest stage of all at the World Cup.

Four years ago in Germany they were dealt the might of Argentina and Netherlands in the group stages, and have faired little better in South Africa where they will pit their considerable wits against five-time champions Brazil and Portugal.

Although Swede Eriksson has been parachuted in at the 11th hour to coach the Ivorians, he has the raw materials -- in Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora, Yaya and Kolo Toure -- to give the South American and European powerhouses real pause for thought.

At the 2006 World Cup they lost their opening two games and were eliminated, although they then delighted the tournament in Germany with a 3-2 win over Serbia & Montenegro in their last game.

This time around they open their campaign against Portugal in Port Elizabeth on June 15 and play Brazil five days later in Johannesburg, and their impressive attacking line could prove good enough to ensure their final Group G game against North Korea in Nelspruit is no consolation game.

The difficult task handed to the Ivorians by the draw in Cape Town in December was exacerbated two months later by the decision to fire coach Vahid Halilhodzic.

The Franco-Bosnian coach had led the Ivorians through a seamless qualifying campaign and lost just two of his 24 games in charge, a friendly in Japan at the start of his reign and against Algeria at the end.

The 3-2 defeat by the Algerians in the quarter-finals of the African Nations Cup in Angola in January was deemed disastrous by the ambitious Ivorians to the extent that the coach was given the sack, even with just months left before the start of the World Cup.

It has also been suggested that Halilhodzic's exit had as much to do with player power as it did with his failure to get the team further in the Nations Cup.

Eriksson had a first chance to see his new charges only at the start of May at their training camp in Switzerland, and friendlies against Paraguay and Japan will give the former England coach a better idea of his potential formations.

Zokora is another outstanding defensive midfielder and the form of these leading lights will be key if the Ivorians are to pick up crucial points in their opening two encounters.

(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Johannesburg; Editing by Miles Evans)