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Decision Day! Eagles on the brink of glory as Nigeria targets fourth AFCON title in Abidjan

Excitement reaches a fever pitch in Abidjan as the Super Eagles prepare for a monumental clash against hosts Cote D’Ivoire in the highly anticipated 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final today. The stage is set for an epic battle, as both football powerhouses vie for continental glory.

After overcoming various challenges in the tournament, the Super Eagles are now on the verge of greatness as they aim to win the prestigious AFCON trophy for the fourth time in their history.

The team last won the tournament in 2013 and having reached today’s final without conceding defeat, the Eagles are imbued with confidence to go for the cup this time.

There have been a lot of changes since their last victory against the Elephants, with the hosts successfully overcoming obstacles and gaining momentum as they head into the showdown in Abidjan.

While Cote d’Ivoire fans envisioned reaching the final before AFCON 2023 commenced, the Super Eagles transformed from underdogs to the highest-ranked nation remaining in the competition. Group-stage exits to Algeria and Tunisia, along with early eliminations in the knockouts to Egypt, Morocco, and defending champions Senegal, catapulted Jose Peseiro’s side to the position of outright favourites.

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

However, they 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 Sunday’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.

Meanwhile, the Ivorians’ campaign was heading for disaster after they lost their final group game 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea but the host have had their fortune turned around since they scraped through to the knockout stage as one of the best losers.

They have won all their matches in more dramatic ways than any side in this competition and it is believed they now have the momentum.

Cote d’Ivoire have won the title only three times and while Nigeria’s victories have been within regulation time in 1980, 1994 and 2013, their two wins have been after marathon penalty shootouts.
In 1992, with their star man Abedi Pele suspended after receiving a red card in the semi-final against Nigeria, Ghana struggled and could not find a way past the Ivorians. In the ensuing penalty shoot-out, Cote d’Ivoire triumphed 11-10, the trophy secured after defender Anthony Baffoe saw his kick saved by Alain Gouamene.

In 2015, they needed to defeat Ghana 9-8 in a penalty shootout to win in Bata, Equatorial Guinea.
Nigeria defeated Algeria 3-0 in the 1980 Final in Lagos, two of the goals from the boots of Segun Odegbami. In 1994, Emmanuel Amuneke scored both goals as the Eagles edged Zambia 2-1 in Tunis. In 2013, Sunday Mba’s early strike against Burkina Faso in Johannesburg was the only goal of the match.

This time, Nigeria’s progress has been relatively smooth, with a team that has shown good shape and proved to be near-impregnable. As they drew 1-1 with Equatorial Guinea, defeated Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Cameroon, and Angola, and edged South Africa after a penalty shootout, the only goal that Stanley Nwabali has conceded in open play has been that of Emilio Nsue on the opening day, when his vision was blocked to a shot at the edge of the box.
However, Eagles coach Peseiro believes neither Nigeria nor the hosts are the favourites for the much-awaited final.

Peseiro told a press conference on Friday that he respects the hosts and their achievements in the competition, but the Eagles are poised to win the tournament and have proved to possess the capability to achieve success.

“Winning AFCON is not easy. For Nigeria to reach the semis, we had to seize the opportunity, uncertain when the next such chance would come. Cote d’Ivoire is a formidable team, but this AFCON is open for anyone to claim, and we are determined to emerge victorious.
The Elephants coach Fae agreed with his Nigerian counterpart, insisting the two teams are at the same level.

“The fact that Nigeria had beaten us is a good thing because we know whom we are up against. How we prepare for the match with our players is critical. I think that the Super Eagles and ourselves are at the same level, ” he said

“We have a great opportunity tomorrow; we are 90 minutes away from adding a third star to the Ivorian jersey. The teams are on equal footing, psychologically. As the competition has progressed, the Nigerian team has gained strength. We had a very difficult journey at the beginning, but we gained momentum from the round of 16 against Senegal.”

“Like any high-level match, like any final, it will come down to the details. We will be patient. We will not rush. We will focus on starting the match well and be patient to unsettle them.”
But for Eagles’ General Coordinator and ex-international, Patrick Pascal, the hosts are under pressure.

“We are not feeling any pressure; it’s the Ivorians who are feeling the heat,” Pascal said. “You could sense their apprehension in Bouake when we played against South Africa. They were backing the Bafana Bafana because they were wary of facing us in the final. However, our boys remained focused and accomplished the task at hand despite the challenging atmosphere. While playing at home in the final naturally comes with pressure, we are poised to demonstrate our prowess on the field come Sunday.”

“Our campaign theme, ‘Let’s Do It Again,’ has been crystal clear. Judging by our progress in the competition, it’s evident that we’ve performed admirably. We’ve only conceded two goals and remain the only team yet to suffer defeat. We don’t underestimate Cote d’Ivoire, acknowledging their strength as hosts, but our players are brimming with determination and confidence to secure victory for their careers, families, and the nation. I can attest to this firsthand as someone who works closely with them.”

Defender Semi Ajayi agreed with the team’s official that the Eagles can shock the hosts today.
“It is a privilege for us to play in the final of AFCON, and we are ready to make it count. We respect the Ivoirian team, but we have our goal which is to win the title,” he told our correspondent at the team’s camp on Saturday.

Top dignitaries from Nigeria are here in Abidjan with Vice President Kashim Shettima leading the Federal Government delegation.

Hundreds of Nigeria have also thronged the commercial city hoping to cheer the Eagles to their fourth AFCON title. Will the Eagles do it again? That question will be answered at the Alassan Outarra Stadium, Abidjan today.

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Written by Olusesan Oba

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