Super Eagles  Fourth AFCON Title Within Reach

Super Eagles  Fourth AFCON Title Within Reach

Nigeria’s dream of a fourth Africa Cup of Nations title will tomorrow face a big test as the Super Eagles battle host, Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire, in the final of the 2023 AFCON at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium. Both teams emerged from the same group and the three-time African champions got the better of their host by a lone goal. However, both sides have since improved and tomorrow’s encounter will be quite tricky

Before the start of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria was not one of the top favourites to clinch the title not because of lack of players’ quality but for posting some disappointing results prior to the tournament, which also question the ability of the team’s head coach, Jose Peseiro to deliver when it matters most.

To make matters worse for the Super Eagles, a number of first team players were injured just days to the kickoff of the biennial competition and it was therefore surprising that a number of countries were ahead of Nigeria on the bookmakers’ list of nations that can go all the way.

Against all odds however, Nigeria will be encountering Cote d’Ivoire in the AFCON 2023 final tomorrow with both having equal chances of clinching it.

Nigeria reached their first final since 2013, when they won their third continental title.

Tomorrow’s Africa Cup of Nations final between Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium is a rematch of their Group A encounter.

Much has changed since the Super Eagles defeated the Elephants earlier in the tournament, with the hosts surmounting obstacles when hope seemed to be lost, and they now appear to have momentum heading into the decider in Abidjan.

While Ivorian fans felt making the decider was attainable before AFCON 2023 kicked off, it was different for the Super Eagles, who went from outsiders for the trophy to being the highest-ranked nation left in the competition after group-stage exits of Algeria and Tunisia and early elimination in the knockouts to Egypt, Morocco and defending champions Senegal.

Despite the three-time champions’ outstanding talent, reservations about Peseiro’s team fuelled doubts about his side, whose performances and results leading to the finals left much to be desired.

However, Nigeria have shown a different version of themselves at the tournament proper, creating chances in their opener against Equatorial Guinea without winning, altering their approach to defeat Cote d’Ivoire and demonstrating defensive astuteness through their journey in the knockout rounds to bring them within touching distance of a fourth crown.

While much has been made of Stanley Nwabali’s impact between the sticks after his penalty-saving exploits against South Africa, the Chippa United goalkeeper’s assuredness has spread calm throughout a previously shaky backline.

The Super Eagles’ four-game run without conceding was halted in the semi-final, albeit by Teboho Mokoena’s 90th-minute penalty, making Nwabali’s only open-play concession Iban Salvador’s strike in the shot-stopper’s tournament debut.

More fascinating for Peseiro’s men is how they have made it this far despite Victor Osimhen not scoring since the 1-1 draw with Nzalang Nacional, even if the Napoli striker’s telling contributions are underscored by his tenacity without the ball, creating chances for teammates and causing panic for the opposition.

The current African Footballer of the Year has had several goals disallowed, typically due to his penchant for being caught offside, although he set up Ademola Lookman’s first against Cameroon in the round of 16 and has won decisive spot-kicks against tomorrow’s opponents and in Wednesday’s semi-final.

With or without scoring, Osimhen’s capacity to influence games could aid the Super Eagles’ bid for a fourth African title.

Despite having first-hand experience of the Napoli striker, Cote d’Ivoire should feel better prepared to take on the Nigeria superstar, with Peseiro’s men taking the Elephants by surprise with a switch to a back three that turned into a five-player backline when they met on January 18.

The jettisoned Jean-Louis Gasset could not react to turn the game with alterations, and the home side resorted to shooting from unfavourable positions when they could not unpick the Nigerian rearguard.

What followed was a 4-0 humiliation against Equatorial Guinea that many thought signalled the end of the Elephants at AFCON 2023, but the home side have raised their level significantly and have been buoyed by the intense support.

Emerse Fae was placed in temporary charge of the side before the Ivorians knew their qualification fate, and the ex- Cote d’Ivoire international has taken the team past the threat of a dreaded Senegal team chasing back-to-back titles and defeating Mali in the quarter-finals despite playing the entire second half and an additional 30 minutes in extra time with 10 men.

An impressive aspect of this team has been the capacity to respond to setbacks in the knockout stage, having fallen behind in the round of 16 and quarter-final games against the Lions of Teranga and the Eagles, with the latter arguably trumping the former because they were shorthanded.

After showing the mental fortitude to persevere, the hosts then halted their run of conceding first in the 1-0 victory over Congo DR, they let in opening goals against Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Senegal and Mali, courtesy of Sebastien Haller’s unconventional finish that deceived Lionel M’Pasi to put them one game away from a third continental title.

The Borussia Dortmund striker was making his first start of the finals, supported by Brighton & Hove Albion attacker Simon Adingra, who netted the late leveller against Mali in the semis, and the pair could be difference makers in tomorrow’s decider.

Having lost the previous two meetings with Nigeria at AFCON 2013, eventually won by the Super Eagles, and earlier at the ongoing finals, the Elephants seek to end their two-game Cup of Nations losing run in this West African rivalry to become the 12th hosts and first since Egypt in 2006 to claim the title on home soil.

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