Super Eagles players celebrating their victory over Ethiopia
By Duro Ikhazuagbe
Players of the Super Eagles realize that Sunday’s Cup of Nations quarter final duel with the Elephants of the Cote d’Ivoire is the biggest test of character they would possibly experience in a long time to come.
As they trained in Rustenburg Friday morning, the players whispered to themselves that Sunday’s clash will be like none other.
On paper, the Ivorians have better rating as a team and on the balance, as individual players. But so many presuppositions have been thrown out the window at this tournament, reminding each and everyone that football is all about current form and who turns up at the party.
There is hardly anything to choose from five previous Cup of Nations clashes between these two West African giants.
On their way to lifting their first title, on home soil in 1980, the Eagles led by Christian Chukwu could not break the Ivorian defence in a 0-0 draw in Lagos, and had to battle hard to overcome resilient Egypt in their third game to reach the semi finals.
Ten years later when Algeria hosted, both teams were in the same group. In the opening match, Clemens Westerhorf’s Eagles got pole-axed 5-1, while the Ivorians dismissed a second-string Egyptian team 3-1.
Nigeria won against Egypt 1-0 while the Elephants were bashed 3-0 by Algeria. It came to the crunch in the final group phase match but Nigeria held on to a goal by Rashidi Yekini in the second minute to go through to the semi finals.
Four years later, both teams would clash in the semi finals of the 19th edition of the Cup of Nations in Tunisia.
In an absorbing, give-and-take game with no let-up and minimal breathing space on a cold evening at Stade El Menzah, the Ivorians went ahead twice, but Nigeria replied each time, and the affair had to be settled by penalty shoot-out after 2-2 draw, which Nigeria won 4-2.
On another cold evening in the Egyptian Mediterranean city of Alexandria in February 2006, Elephants avenged by piping the Eagles 1-0 in their semi final clash, the same result when both teams clashed in the group phase at the 26th finals in Ghana in 2008.
Vincent Enyeama, arguably the best goalkeeper in Africa, will stand between the rampant Ivorians and goal and he has sparkling pedigree to do a great job.
Nigeria has never lost a Cup of Nations quarter final match with Enyeama in goal.
In 2004, on a tense evening in Monastir, Cameroun went a goal up after Samuel Eto’o rounded Isaac Okoronkwo on a counter-attack, but goals by Jay-Jay Okocha and John Utaka saw Nigeria through to the semi finals.
Two years later, Enyeama was the hero when Nigeria eliminated Cup holders Tunisia on penalty shoo-out on another memorable evening in Port Said.
In 2010, Enyeama stood firm against the Zambians in Lubango and kept his nerve to score the kick that took Nigeria to the last four.
Enyeama, whose massive intervention 36 seconds after Victor Moses’ first penalty, kept Nigeria in the good against Ethiopia on Tuesday, is expected to be protected by Nigeria’s record caps’ holder Joseph Yobo, Godfrey Oboabona, Kenneth Omeruo and Elderson Echiejile.
With midfield enforcer Fegor Ogude suspended, it could be opportunity for precocious home-boy Ruben Gabriel to confirm his quality at championship level.
Much will be expected of star midfielder John Mikel Obi in holding balls and doing the long thrusts, while an attack of Brown Ideye, Emmanuel Emenike, Victor Moses and Ikechukwu Uche have capacity to spring surprises against the Elephants.