Gervinho’s brilliant late volley gave Ivory Coast a 2-1 win over Togo in their African Cup of Nations Group D opener in Rustenburg.
Yaya Toure gave the Elephants an early lead, but Jonathan Ayite levelled just before half-time in a scrappy affair punctuated by fouls, particularly aimed at Didier Drogba, who was shut out of the match in cynical fashion.
With the match heading for a draw, Gervinho struck in style with an inventive and perfectly executed volley from a Yaya Toure free-kick.
Togo almost snatched an equaliser at the death after a fantastic Emmanuel Adebayor pass saw Floyd Ayite fly in with a diving header, but Boubacar Barry made a reflex save as his side held on for three points.
The victory was just about deserved, with the Elephants having upped the ante in the latter stages, although Togo will be disappointed that they failed to clear the initial delivery for the winner, which keeper Kossi Agassa flapped at.
Ivory Coast, as ever one of the pre-tournament favourites, were comfortably favoured by the bookmakers prior to kick-off, which seemed harsh on a Togo side boasting Adebayor.
Indeed, they started well and should have taken an early lead when an error from the shaky Kolo Toure let Adebayor through – however, the Tottenham striker hesitated, allowing Barry to get a hand on it and Kolo Toure to recover and clear.
Togo paid for the miss as, five minutes later, the Elephants were ahead as Yaya Toure fired through a crowded penalty area after a short corner involving Gervinho: Kossi Agassa was unsighted by his defenders and the ball nestled in the right-hand side of the goal.
Togo responded well, although mostly with rash long-range efforts as Adebayor was forced to feed off scraps.
The one chance he did get was again wasted due to hesitance, as his decision to take a touch after Serge Gapke’s fine pass allowed defenders to come back and clear.
Meanwhile, Yaya Toure had hit the crossbar with a fierce drive as the game opened up.
And, deep into first-half injury time, Ivory Coast’s defensive frailty allowed Togo to claim their equaliser as Jonathan Ayite poked the ball home from a weak low corner to the near post.
The Elephants responded well at the start of the second half, pegging Togo deep in their own half, although they only tested Agassa the once as Didier Ya Konan forced a smart stop from the veteran Reims keeper.
Just before the hour mark Togo got a second wind, with defender Dare Nibombe flicking a header into the top left corner but the referee adjudging the corner to have been taken too quickly.
The Ivorians were starting to toil somewhat, so the introduction of the surprisingly benched Salomon Kalou for the ineffectual Max Gradel was most welcome.
Togo were on the back foot again as Ivory Coast attacked in waves, winning a succession of set pieces as Yaya Toure missed another good chance as he fired too close to Agassi following a superb piece of play by Gervinho.
Drogba had barely had a sniff and was replaced by Wilfried Bony for the last quarter hour. The decision was a good one as, while Bony did not have any chances, there was a touch more urgency about their attacks.
Still, Togo could have taken the lead, with another poor piece of Ivorian defending at a corner allowing Vincent Bossou to finish, but his rising effort was deflected over.
It looked like another Afcon draw was beckoning until, with two minutes of normal time left, the Elephants won a free-kick on the right wing. Yaya Toure’s delivery was good enough – dipping at the far post – but Agassa’s attempts to fly out and punch clear were haphazard at best, as the ball dropped to Gervinho at the far post.
The Arsenal forward had it all to do though, at a tight angle and with bodies in his way, but his instinctive flying volley across goal nestled in the top right, a fantastic finish and worthy of winning the match.
Togo almost snatched a late leveller in the final minute of injury time as Adebayor scooped a Laudrup-esque pass into the box, flicked on by Bossou for the diving Floyd Ayite to meet with a brave header.
But Barry was equally brave as, once more in Africa, having a decent goalkeeper ultimately proved the difference.