Home News Nigeria Aim To Deny Ivorian Hosts In AFCON Final | Football/Soccer

Nigeria Aim To Deny Ivorian Hosts In AFCON Final | Football/Soccer

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After a record number of goals, unrelenting shocks and an apparent capacity for unceasing drama, the Africa Cup of Nations will finish on Sunday when either hosts Ivory Coast or fellow former champions Nigeria will be crowned kings of Africa.

The Super Eagles are aiming for a fourth continental crown in Abidjan while the Ivorians are looking to add to their triumphs in 1992 and 2015.

The teams will meet for the second time at this year’s finals, 24 days after the Ivorians suffered a first-ever home defeat by Nigeria when they won 1-0 in the group stage.

The Elephants are the first host nation to reach the final since Egypt in 2006, with five of the last six hosts to have contested the final having gone on to lift the trophy – the only exception being the Super Eagles themselves in 2000.

Unbeaten unlike their opponents, the Nigerians are the highest-ranked of the finalists – rated sixth in Africa (and 42nd in the world), as opposed to Ivory Coast’s African ranking of eighth (and 49th overall).

Seeking a first title since 2013, Nigeria cruised through the group stages with seven points before, amid a run of four straight clean sheets, defeating Cameroon, Angola and South Africa in the knockout stages.

After the Nigeria loss, Ivory Coast then suffered a record home – and Nations Cup – defeat by Equatorial Guinea (0-4), only squeezing through as a best third-placed side before coming to life with dramatic knock-out wins over Senegal and Mali before beating DR Congo in the last four.

After one of the best Nations Cups in living memory, the hope is that Sunday’s final (20:00 GMT) in Abidjan’s 60,000-seater stadium will providing a fitting climax.

“The organisation has been brilliant, the pitches great, we’ve seen some unbelievable matches and now Ivory Coast is in the final with Nigeria – what a game,” former Elephant Kolo Toure enthused to the BBC.

‘Collective effort’ to boost Nigeria

Even though they are playing in Abidjan, Nigeria are the nominal home side – and in spite of the intense backing provided by the Ivorian fans, whose support has been regularly praised by the national squad, the Nigeria camp say they would not have it any other way.

“The atmosphere will be fantastic and my players and staff all prefer to play in a full stadium, despite the level of noise,” Nigeria coach Jose Pereiro said on Saturday.

“Ivory Coast were favourites ahead of this tournament, but we want to win this Nations Cup. My only plan is to beat Ivory Coast and win this trophy for the people of Nigeria.”

Appointed in 2022, the former Sporting Lisbon and Porto coach has been widely criticised by Nigerian fans throughout much of his tenure but now stands on the verge of adding to titles won in 1980, 1994 and 2013.

During all three of those triumphs, the Super Eagles played Ivory Coast – against whom they have won three times and lost twice during their seven previous meetings at the finals.

With a back line superbly marshalled by former Watford centre-back William Troost-Ekong and long-term West Brom defender Semi Ajayi, Nigeria have conceded just two goals in six games – while scoring seven at the other end.

Surprisingly, only one of those has come from Napoli striker Victor Osimhen, the reigning African Footballer of the Year who has converted just one of his 24 chances, albeit while having had two goals ruled out by VAR and another disallowed for handball.

Nonetheless, Osimhen has earned plaudits for his tireless running and pressing, and played the semi-final despite stomach problems, where he earned the penalty from which Nigeria converted their only goal.

“He doesn’t play like a star, but fights for the team,” said the Portuguese Peseiro, 63.

“He knows he’s an important player and because of that, he suffers for the team – getting kicked around – but he helps us as much as the team helps him. It’s a collective effort and we fight together.”

With Osimhen failing to add to his goal in Nigeria’s opener, Atalanta forward Ademola Lookman is Nigeria’s top scorer with three goals, while Troost-Ekong, having netted two high-pressure penalties, is the only other Nigerian to have scored (an own goal aside).

‘I’m not the special one’

Fittingly for a competition which has been played in excellent spirit through, Peseiro took time on Saturday to “congratulate Emerse Fae” for the interim Ivory Coast coach’s impressive handling of his side after taking over a seemingly-sinking ship.

After coach Jean-Louis Gasset vacated his role shortly after the Elephants’ group campaign, with some saying the Frenchman chose to resign rather than being fired, former Ivorian international Fae stepped in just hours before the team staggered into the knockout stages.

There has been little limp about the side ever since, with the Ivorians showing incredible mental fortitude when finding late equalisers en route to eliminating defending champions Senegal and Mali in two epic ties, prior to a far more routine victory against DR Congo on Wednesday.

Having previously coached Nice’s youth teams and the reserve team of French Ligue 1 club Clermont Foot, Fae – who had been Gasset’s assistant since the latter’s appointment in May 2022 – rejected talk of him being a “special one” on Saturday.

“I said from the start that I was fortunate to know the squad for two years,” he said. “We just tried to focus on building the right chemistry – I haven’t invented anything but done all the basics, like making all the players feel important and building cohesion.

“We deserve to be in the final and the most important thing was to regain confidence, rebuild the team and it was good to tidy things in defence. We’ve been taking things one step at a time.”

Source: BBC



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