Ivory Coast defeated Gabon 3-0 in the 2018 World Cup qualifying Group E match on Saturday in Libreville.
It was the first leg of a double-header that will be completed three days later in Ivory Coast city of Bouake.
Gabon were without their top player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and veteran goalkeeper Didier Ovono, who could make the final roster due to injuries.
Ivory Coast had a full house and appeared to be determined to strengthen their top of the table status in Group E after Morocco walloped Mali 6-0 in the group’s other game on Friday.
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The first real goal opportunity fell to Ivorian captain Gervinho, who cut in through the left flank and unleashed an effort to connect a white shirt in Gabon box but goalkeeper Yves Stéphane Bitséki parried fine, as the half-packed Amitié Stadium cheered on.
Ivory Coast goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo was called to action minutes later, when the Panthers launched a scary counterattack that almost destabilised the Ivorian defence marshalled by Manchester United man Eric Bailly.
After 10 minutes, the hosts began to find their rhythm as the game grew in stature, with Southampton midfielder Mario Lamina deftly organising their push up field in the absence of Aubameyang. The Ivorian rearguard seemed to be solidly in place.
Former Chelsea winger Salomon Kalou broke loose to the left flank and surged forward but crashed his effort against a Gabonese defender by the 15th minute.
Denis Athanase Bouanga almost ran home with a counter when he was set up to the right in Ivory Coast area but the FC Lorient midfielder couldn’t outpace the Elephants’ goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo of TP Mazembe, who was quick off his line to block the action.
Kalou came calling once more. He found space on the edge of Gabon box, composed himself ahead of a last-ditch goal effort, but was soon crowded out and robbed of the ball.
After 25 minutes, the game looked very balanced, with both sides creating clear-cut chances but with none finding back of the net.
Bouanga remained a thorn in the flesh of the Ivorian back half, as he kept cutting in from the right wing and flicking long passes to his forwards in the box.
Gabon goalkeeper Bitséki thwarted a goal effort from Jean Michel Seri, whose breathtaking header was tipped over the bar with a finger. Two minutes, the 34-year-old short-stopper sustained an injury after fending off another dangerous action in his area.
It was the time when Ivory Coast were in the ascendancy, with Gervinho, Kalou and Max Gradel trading passes in a frenetic pace. But it was Serge Aurier, whose ferocious shot, 15 yards out, almost opened the scoring for the visitors. But the effort of the new Tottenham signing missed the target by inches, as the first half ended in a goalless draw.
Back from the break, Ivory Coast’s Seri, who was still recovering from his failed dream move to FC Barcelona, drifted deep with a ball and fired at the post but it floated off the target.
Gradel broke the deadlock by the 53rd minute after claiming a loose ball and drifting into the box. The Bournemouth winger, on loan at French side Toulouse, outmuscled two defenders before hitting the back net to hand the Elephants the lead.
Second half entrant Malick Evouna, who has scored 12 goals in 29 appearances for Gabon national team, almost grabbed the equaliser for the Panthers after beating Ivory Coast last defender Bailly, claiming the ball with just the goalkeeper to beat. However, the referee’s whistle stopped him, mentioning a fault on the Red Devils man.
Moments later, enterprising Bouanga ran onto a defence-splitting pass and poked his clear effort at goal but it crashed against the side net.
Gabon were pushing forth and hard, with Aaron Salem Boupendza singlehandedly breaking down the entire Ivorian defence set-up but goalkeeper Gbohouo intervened timeously to save the situation.
Ivory Coast scored a second goal through Seydou Doumbia. The Sporting forward on loan from Roma was released by a Gervinho’s pass on the edge of the box. And after sidestepping the goalkeeper he finished his effort aplomb by the 77th.
With two goals down, the Gabonese literally left the session for the Ivorians to dictate. Doumbia powered the Elephants’ lead to 3-0, once again with Gervinho providing the assist from the left after outpacing two defenders.
Ivory Coast pressed for more goals but had to be content with a satisfactory 3-0 away outcome which now ensures they keep stranglehold of Group E with 7 points, with Morocco now second with 5 points after handing Mali a 6-0 drubbing on Friday. Gabon and Mali now have 2 and 1 point respectively.
Ivory Coast will host Gabon for the reverse fixture on Tuesday September 5 in Bouake at 17h30 GMT.