And then there were two.
Of the 24 countries that arrived in Ivory Coast for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, it is Nigeria and the hosts that will play the most important game – the final.
For the Super Eagles, it was pretty straightforward. After a dire 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea in their first group game, they have gone on a winning streak, conceding only one more time.
On the other hand, the Ivorians needed a last-minute miracle to qualify as one of the best third-placed teams.
“A case of many things coming together for good for both teams,” Yemi Adesanya, a sports pundit and podcaster, tells DAILY POST.
“The hosts can be compared to the Walking Dead, gradually finding their feet with nothing to lose and that’s a dangerous trait to have.
“For Nigeria, it is only at the semi-final you can add a dose of luck as being a factor with the missed South African chance at the death and the lottery of penalties.”
Jose Peseiro, who many have doubted since he took over the Eagles, had to dig into his bag of tactics to salvage their campaign.
The Portuguese coach switched to a 3-4-3 setup, which has seen Nigeria build their momentum on defensive solidity, sacrificing some of the team’s attacking flair.
Peseiro’s improvement has also seen him maximize his squad.
For the first time at the AFCON, he summoned Kelechi Iheanacho and Terem Moffi from the bench during the semi-final win over South Africa in extra time. And both forwards were instrumental to the team’s progress to the final, also converting their spot-kicks.
“Excellent, every decision he has taken so far at this AFCON has been brilliant.
“My only worry is I thought he kept the subs a little too late,” Adesanya adds.
The final will be a repeat of the Group A fixture that saw Nigeria defeat Ivory Coast 1-0.
William Troost-Ekong’s penalty proved to be the decisive goal.
But Sunday will be a different game altogether.
The Elephants are being coached by Emerse Fae, who took charge of the team on an interim basis after Jean-Louis Gasset was fired.
Fae has galvanized the squad and given the country hope again.
The last time Nigeria faced an AFCON host in the final, they lost 1-0 to Algeria.
The Super Eagles are eyeing a fourth continental title, while Ivory Coast could draw level on three with their West Africa rivals.
What should we expect?
“I think we can expect a very physical game between these two,” Solace Chukwu, the Senior Editor at Pulse Sports, tells DAILY POST.
“Alassane Ouattara (stadium) has the worst playing surface of any of the stadiums in the tournament, and that could be inimical to any sort of proper rhythm.
“So it is likely to be a see-saw battle just like their group stage meeting was.
“The major factor is just how fatigued Nigeria is, and how much they have left.
“Jose Peseiro has asked his players to go through the pain barrier, stand up and still keep going, and so it is possible all that exertion comes back to haunt them.
“Cote d’Ivoire has the nation behind them, and it seems to me that, to beat them, one will need to be fresh and alert.
“Senegal and Mali paid for momentary lapses, and so Nigeria will need to be at their most switched-on and, as much as possible, limit the amount of chaos in the match.”
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