One of football's great truisms is that teams who start tournaments well rarely go on to win them and that, conversely, the ideal way to plot a course through a tournament is to start slowly and peak in the last couple of games. It's not a theory that stand up to much scrutiny (it may work for Italy at the 1982 World Cup, Denmark at Euro 92 or Uruguay at the 2011 Copa America), but there are countless counter examples in the shape of Egypt at the Cup of Nations in 2008, for instance, or Spain at Euro 2008, or West Germany at the 1990 World Cup. Nevertheless, it's a narrative that suits Ivory Coast at the moment.
They beat Togo on Tuesday, 2-1, and Gervinho scored a lovely winner that might restore his confidence, but there were few other positives.
Their passing was poor, their defending was sloppy and when they took the lead they seemed to slide into complacency. Didier Drogba, subbed after 74 minutes with the score at 1-1, had perhaps his quietest game in a Cup of Nations. Kolo Toure, who seems never quite to have recovered from being destroyed by Amr Zaki in the Cup of Nations semi-final in 2008, was again jittery. His mistake in the second minute, when he presented Emmanuel Adebayor with the ball inside the Ivorian box was so bad, it seemed to take the forward by surprise and his slight hesitation allowed Boubacar Barry to make a brave block.
Yaya Toure is a player who seems repeatedly cast in the role of saviour. He has frequently, over the past season and a half, made game-changing interventions for Manchester City and he had to do the same for Ivory Coast. He is a remarkable figure, holding player and attacking midfielder in one body, strong and aggressive, yet smooth and deft. He also projects a great aura of authority. As the ball broke back to him as Gervinho's eighth-minute dart into the box was blocked, there was little doubt he would score. It was the fourth successive Cup of Nations in which he had found the net. The only surprise 36 minutes later, when he found himself in a similar position, was that his shot thudded into the post. It was, inevitably, his free-kick that set up Gervinho's winner.
"There are no easy teams in this tournament," he said. "For us the most important thing is that we were able to start the campaign with a win. The expectations are high from the people of Ivory Coast. We want to make them happy by going home with the title. We need to keep the winning momentum going to not only reach the knockout stage but also go all the way to win the tournament. It will not be easy but are ready for the challenge to deliver on our promise of winning the title."
There has been a strange sense in the build-up to this tournament that what Ivory Coast did in the group stage didn't really matter. What was important was how they reacted when they came under pressure, given that in each of the last four Cups of Nations they've looked good only to falter at key moments. Last year, in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, Francois Zahoui had them play a cautious averse style, playing risk-averse football and waiting for mistakes and set-plays. It worked: they didn't concede a goal in the whole tournament and had Drogba converted a penalty with 20 minutes of the final remaining, the strategy would have been hailed as a success. But Drogba missed and Ivory Coast lost on penalties; leaving everybody wondering how it was possible to keep six clean sheets out of six and still fail to win.
That sense of security was absent on Tuesday and the goal Ivory Coast conceded to Jonathan Ayite stemmed from a simple lack of concentration at a corner, the sort of error from a set-play that undermined Ivory Coast's efforts in Angola three years ago.
"Our performance which was far from what we can do," the coach Sabri Lamouchi said. "This is the worst game for my team since I took over. I know the first game at the Africa Cup of Nations is always difficult but I didn't expect it to be that complicated. We committed some serious errors especially defensive ones. I'm happy with this victory but am not sure if that was well deserved. I know the next game is going to be more difficult."
Tunisia, Ivory Coast's opponents on Saturday, also won their first game, beating Algeria 1-0 despite being on the back foot for most of the game, the winner coming in the 90th minute as Youssef Msakni thrashed a shot into the top corner from 25 yards. Vahid Halilhodzic's Algeria looked impressive and, while there is the possibility they will lose to Togo and be out of contention by the time they face Ivory Coast, the probability is they will be scrapping for qualification come that final round of games.
From that point of view, the win over Togo was vital, and it does mean Ivory Coast can probably afford one slip-up. Securing qualification, of course, is their first priority - something that perhaps was forgotten in that lethargic display against Togo - but there must also be a realisation that significant improvement is needed if the so-called golden generation is finally to win a trophy.
There's no point avoiding the trap of peaking too soon if you don't peak at all.