- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) - Ivory Coast’s defense of its African Cup title looked shaky on Friday in a 2-2 draw with Congo, and a bumpy field helped Morocco see off Togo 3-1. The Ivorians dropped out of the quarterfinal places with one crucial round left in Group C.

Although Ivory Coast showed heart to pick itself up twice after falling behind against Congo, it’s still struggling after starting with two draws. Wilfried Bony equalized the first time against Congo with a header after Neeskens Kebano put the Congolese ahead inside 10 minutes with a sweet first-time shot.

Congo responded two minutes after Bony’s equalizer to lead again through Junior Kabananga, left completely unmarked in the 28th to head powerfully home.

Needing a goal, Ivory Coast captain Serey Die surged forward and his deflected shot in the 67th wrong-footed goalkeeper Ley Matampi and rolled past into the bottom right corner.

Die’s goal and his passionate celebration roused his teammates and the champions finished stronger in Oyem after a sluggish start, with substitute Salomon Kalou’s injury-time goal ruled out for offside when it was touch and go.

“What I take away is that we came back each time,” Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer said. “We went through some difficult periods, difficult moments, but we came back into the game and we finally finished stronger than Congo. So the positive thing, I think, is that we found our soul.”

It may have been heart and soul stuff from Ivory Coast, but the lack of a win dropped it to third in Group C after Morocco came back from 1-0 down in Friday’s second game to beat Togo 3-1, helped by the Stade d’Oyem’s conspicuously uneven field.

Ahead of the tournament, Dussuyer and Togo coach Claude le Roy already had issues with the surface at Stade d’Oyem, one of two new venues built in a rush and which barely made it on time.

Morocco was 2-1 up heading into the final 20 minutes, but Togo was lifting itself for one final surge, when Moroccan forward Youssef En-Nesyri unleashed a shot that was fierce but from way out. Togo goalkeeper Kossi Agassa dived to his right and seemingly had it covered, before the ball skipped off a ridge and sailed over him.

The win for Morocco, ironically now coached by Ivory Coast’s 2015 title-winning manager Herve Renard, left this year’s Ivorians in real trouble with a decisive game against Renard’s Morocco to come.

Congo tops the group with four points, Morocco has three, Ivory Coast two, and Togo one. Only the top two make the quarterfinals.

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FIELDS OF DISPUTE

As for the bumpy Oyem field, Ivory Coast coach Dussuyer turned to a CAF official at a pitch inspection ahead of the first round of games and pointed out the ridges on the surface.

“But you’ve played on worse elsewhere,” the official replied.

On Friday, Khalilou Fadiga, a former Senegal international now on CAF’s technical and development committee, said: “Let the players not expect the pitches in Africa to be like those in Europe.”

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FOLLOW FIFA?

Maybe Madagascar federation head Ahmad Ahmad has a plan for better playing surfaces.

As teams tussle for a place in the knockout stage of the continent’s main tournament, a bigger battle at the very top of African football was also starting to take shape. Ahmad, recently confirmed as a rare challenger to Issa Hayatou for president of the Confederation of African Football, spoke to The Associated Press in Gabon. He said it was time for change, for “fresh blood,” after nearly 30 years of Hayatou’s leadership.

African soccer’s future, at least for the next four years, will be decided in a presidential vote in March.

Although not on the scale of the turmoil at FIFA, these are interesting times for soccer politics and CAF.

Ahmad was confirmed as a candidate at the start of this tournament, the first challenge in years to Hayatou - the Cameroonian who stood in as FIFA president during the world governing body’s corruption crisis and who has headed African football since 1988. Along the way, Hayatou himself has shrugged off accusations of corruption and an official reprimand from the International Olympic Committee.

“If the world football body can have change for fresh blood to come in, why not at CAF?” Ahmad said.

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AP journalists Andrew Drake in Oyem, Gabon, and Andrew Jackson Oryada in Libreville, Gabon, contributed to this report.

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