JOHANNESBURG - Ivory Coast will once again be the Africa Cup of Nations team to beat when South Africa stages the 2013 finals early next year.
But it is not a tag the "Elephants" are going to be comfortable wearing since they have failed to justify being favourites in the previous four editions of the flagship African football tournament.
Didier Drogba and his co-stars finished runners-up to 2006 hosts Egypt, came fourth in Ghana two years later, made a 2010 quarter-finals exit and were runners-up again this year.
Adding to the frustrations of ageing stars like Drogba, Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora was the fact that both final defeats came in penalty shootouts after 120 goalless minutes.
However, after outplaying Senegal at home and away in a shortened elimination competition to accommodate two Cup of Nations tournaments in as many years, Ivory Coast find themselves among the top seeds, and 2013 title favourites.
Senegal led twice in Abidjan only to lose 4-2 and a Drogba brace in Dakar at the weekend stretched the overall advantage to four goals before crowd violence forced the return match to be abandoned 15 minutes from time.
Despite the premature end, Senegalese football officials have accepted the inevitable, saying they are out of the tournament and expect punishment, while a list of the 16 qualifers on the CAF website includes the Ivorians.
Drogba believes South Africa may be the last-chance saloon for him and other 30-plus stars: "It is the last one for a great number of us and we will do everything possible to lift the trophy in South Africa."
The former Chelsea star now playing in Shanghai has a personal reason for wanting to win the February 10 Johannesburg final as he blazed a regular-time penalty over the bar against Zambia in Libreville last February.
South Africa, Zambia and Ghana are the other top seeds, Mali, Tunisia, Angola and Nigeria will be in Pot 2, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco and Niger in Pot 3 and Togo, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia in Pot 4.
Seeding is based on results from the past three Cup of Nations tournaments in Ghana, Angola and Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, rather than FIFA rankings, and, theoretically, keeps the "big guns" apart.
But if Ivory Coast, whose lone title came in Dakar 20 years ago, Nigeria, Algeria or Morocco and DR Congo find themselves in the same group, they will surely curse the seeding system privately while putting on a brave public face.
The 2013 line-up includes nine of the 16 finalists from this year in Zambia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Ghana, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Niger and Angola, and Cape Verde are the lone debutants.
Record seven-time champions Egypt and four-time title holders Cameroon are the most glaring absentees -- both also missed the 2012 event -- with ageing teams eliminated by Central African Republic and Cape Verde respectively.
Johannesburg will stage the January 19 opening double-header and the final at the 93,000-seat Soccer City stadium with the other 29 games divided between Durban, Nelspruit, Port Elizabeth and Rustenburg.
Scheduled to stage the 2017 Cup of Nations, South Africa exchanged tournaments with original 2013 hosts Libya, a nation slowly recovering from a popular uprising that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
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