ACCRA (AFP) - Didier Drogba marked his 50th international cap with a goal to help Ivory Coast beat Mali 3-0 here Tuesday to finish the opening round of the African Nations Cup as Group B leaders.
With qualification to the last eight already in the bag Ivory Coast were intent on finishing top of the table with a perfect nine points to avoid hosts Ghana in the quarter-finals.
And goals from Drogba, Benfica's Marc Zoro and Boubacar Sanogo accomplished the mission to leave them facing Group A runners up Guinea in Sekondi on Sunday.
For Mali, who have never lifted the continental crown, it was time to say goodbye to Ghana after Nigeria secured the other last eight ticket on offer from Group B with victory over Benin up in Sekondi.
Drogba, who was taken off before the end, said: "We've qualified well but there's a hard quarter-final ahead for us. Guinea aren't there by accident."
Coach Gerard Gili added: "This win will stand us in good stead, with a tough quarter-final coming up.
"Thanks to the individuality and experience of some of the players we won well."
Mali coach Jean-Francois Jolar tipped Ivory Coast to go all the way. "We lost to a strong and complete team, they have everything to win the title."
Explaining the non-appearance of star striker Fredi Kanoute for the second half he said: "Unfortunately Fredi was injured, it was a big blow. Another blow was Adama Coulibaly, who became ill.
"I'm very disappointed that we didn't play well in the first half, we didn't take risks in attack, we didn't manage to impose in midfield."
The Ivory Coast's injured Arsenal full back Kolo Toure was one of five changes Gili made from the side that beat Benin to clinch their place in the quarter-finals.
Momo Sissoko, back from signing his new contract with Juventus, started on the bench.
Mali were without suspended Real Madrid midfielder and skipper Mahamadou Diarra, Greece-based Bassala Toure inheriting the captain's armband.
With one point each a mutually convenient result for these west African neighbours Mali were at pains to rule out any type of 'deal' to engineer a draw in the pre-match build-up.
Parity might have suited Drogba too, given that his wife is Malian, but he risked a frosty reception at home when putting the Ivorians into a ninth minute lead.
The team's talisman ran on to Yaya Toure's pass and slotted the ball right-footed past Mali keeper Mahamadou Sidibe from the left of the area.
That was his second of the competition and it marked in a fitting way his 50th cap.
A goal down so soon left Mali with only one option, and it wasn't to defend, yet Drogba and his men were in dominant mode and almost had a second on 18 minutes only for Zoro to miscue his header into an open goal.
Down at the other end Fredi Kanoute only narrowly failed to get his head to a well targeted 30 yard free kick as Mali went for the all important equaliser.
Mali's Adama Tamboura then picked up a yellow card for a heavy tackle on Drogba, who is only now coming back to full match fitness after his December knee surgery.
Jolar then took off Kanoute for the second half, replacing the Sevilla striker with Sissoko, a midfielder.
Any notion these regional mates might help each other out were dispelled when the Ivorians went further ahead in the 53rd minute, Benfica defender Zoro heading in Kader Keita's corner from the left.
On the hour Jolar replaced Toure with Mahamadou Dissa as he attempted to strengthen his attacking options.
Mali went close to pulling one back when Seydou Keita floated the ball into the area only for Dramane Traore's angled header to hit the crossbar.
Drogba, having done his stuff, came off with quarter of an hour to go and five minutes later Sanogo pounced on a rebound to complete the Ivorians' three star victory.
|Coach: G. Gili|
for A. Keïta 59'
for D. Drogba 75'
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