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SHOWDOWN IN ABIDJAN: Can Super Eagles Tame Elephants Again?

Whenever the story of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations is told, it will not be devoid of dramatic moments and crescendo. The build-up to the grand finale between Nigeria’s Super Eagles and Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire was filled with melodramatic flashes from the beginning to the end.
The Elephants who are also the host nation practically rose from the ashes of defeats in the Group stage to the final. Two losses from Nigeria (1-0) and Equatorial Guinea (4-0) condemned them to the brink of early exit before Morocco saved them. From then on, it was one saving goal to another from the last of the 16 to the quarter-final.

Nigeria had its share of melodrama, especially, in the semi-final against arch-rivals South Africa, when their second goal was canceled through VAR and a penalty awarded to Bafana Bafana. Super Eagles survived the onslaught to win 4-2 on penalty.         

BATTLEGROUND

Nigeria, who are hoping to win the competition for a fourth time, face host nation and two-time winners Cote d’Ivoire in the deciding game on Sunday night.

These two sides already met in the group stage, with Nigeria winning 1-0, and have been on completely different journeys to reach the final.

Led by Emerse Fae, who took over from Jean-Louis Gasset following a humiliating 4-0 defeat against Equatorial Guinea in their final group game that left them sweating on qualification for the knockout phase as one of the best third-place finishers. The hosts then sparked into life, though; after beating defending champions Senegal on penalties in the last 16, they thrillingly squeezed past Mali in a quarter-final that also went to extra time, before winning 1-0 against DR Congo in the last four.

Nigeria, who are unbeaten in the tournament and have only conceded two goals in their six matches, have been rugged and composed throughout, with their only real scare coming in the semi-finals when they edged South Africa out on penalties after an extraordinary game.

Jose Peseiro’s side, who have only conceded twice in the tournament, use a 3-4-3 formation that is difficult to break down and contributes to their counter-attacking threat, which is formidable.

All four of Cote d’Ivoire’s previous Africa Cup of Nations finals have ended 0-0 and gone to penalties. They won two of those shootouts (1992 and 2015, both against Ghana) and lost two (2006 against Egypt, and 2012 against Zambia).

HOW THEY PLAY

Ademola Lookman, Victor Osimhen, and Moses Simon have the freedom to stay high up the pitch because of the organised structure behind them and, when they receive the ball, can quickly take advantage of opponents who are out of position.

Osimhen, the reigning men’s African Footballer of the Year, has performed a vital role for Nigeria. The 25-year-old presses defenders relentlessly, creating space for his teammates to exploit — and it was this that led to Lookman’s first goal against Cameroon.

Interim coach Fae also has star player Sebastian Haller to thank for coming this far. He made his comeback for the German club Borussia Dortmund after undergoing multiple operations and rounds of chemotherapy to remove a testicular tumour. It is a remarkable story of recovery which would be capped off wonderfully if he can lead Ivory Coast to glory.

Haller only made his first appearance in this tournament in the round of 16 because of an ankle injury but made an immediate impact with an intelligent through ball in the build-up to Nicolas Pepe winning a penalty.

His duels with Nigeria’s captain and center-back William Troost-Ekong will be fun to watch, and if he wins enough headers in the opposition half, his teammates should find themselves in promising situations.

Kessie has also played well and Jean Michael Seri has greatly improved the team’s balance since he started operating at the base of the midfield.

Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali is also an important figure. The 27-year-old, whose only previous cap was in 2021, has replaced Francis Uzoho as No 1 this year and so far has coped with the pressure.

He was the hero of the shootout triumph over South Africa in the semi-finals, and if Nwabali can deliver once more it will crown what has been an incredible debut tournament for him.

Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire will be meeting for the eighth time at AFCON with the Super Eagles boasting a better record of three victories to the Ivorians’ two.

The latest meeting saw the Super Eagles record a tense 1-0 win over Ivory Coast in this year’s group stages with William Troost-Ekong scoring the winner from the spot.

It has been a good omen for the Super Eagles to face the Elephants in the tournament as they’ve gone on to win the last three editions (1980, 1994, 2013) when they faced the Ivorians.

Nigeria’s last AFCON final came in 2013 when they overcame Burkino Faso to win the tournament, while Ivory Coast’s previous final saw them win that dramatic penalty shoot-out against Ghana in 2015.

STAR MEN

Victor Osimhen (Nigeria)

Osimhen has struggled for goals in the tournament with his only strike coming in Nigeria’s opening game against Equatorial Guinea, which ended in a 1-1 draw. The reigning men’s African Footballer of the Year has performed a vital role for Nigeria. The 25-year-old presses defenders relentlessly, creating space for his teammates to exploit — and it was this that led to Lookman’s first goal against Cameroon.

William Troost-Ekong (Nigeria)

The Nigeria captain has been one of the outstanding players in the competition. Not only has the 30-year-old been a rock and a leader at the back, but he has also taken responsibility at the other end and dispatched penalties at key moments for his nation. The former Watford player scored the winning goal from the spot against the Ivorians in the group match and also converted two more penalties – one in the shoot-out – during Nigeria’s dramatic semi-final victory over South Africa. Interestingly enough, Troost-Ekong has scored four goals from his last five shots on target in his AFCON career so don’t expect him to be far away from the action on Sunday.

Sebastien Haller (Cote d’ivoire)

Sebastien Haller is on the brink of completing one of the most remarkable footballing stories in recent memory. In July 2022, the Borussia Dortmund striker was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and his professional career was put on hold for treatment. He managed to return to full training in January 2023 and netted his first goal for the club against Freiburg on World Cancer Day.

Haller made his first start in the semi-final against DR Congo and his second-half strike was enough to see Ivory Coast book their place in Sunday’s final. How fitting would it be for the 29-year-old to cap his unbelievable turnaround by grabbing the winning goal against the Super Eagles?

Simon Adingra (Cote d’ivoire)

Similar to Sebastien Haller, team-mate Simon Adingra has been forced to bide his time before lighting up AFCON with his performances this year. A hamstring injury forced him to miss the opening two matches of the tournament and he only featured for seven minutes as Cote d’Ivoire were humbled 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea. However, his return to the team has seen an upturn in form and they haven’t looked back since.

The Brighton man can already consider himself a national hero after he kept the hosts in the competition with a stoppage-time equaliser in the quarter-final against Mali. Cote d’Ivoire had been down to 10 men since the end of the first half but Adingra came off the bench to send the crowd wild with his strike before they went one further and won the game in the 120th minute to go through.(Nation)

Source: Hardcore News 

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