By Wale Mustapha
The curtain will be drawn on the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON when hosts, Elephants of Ivory Coast take on Nigeria’s Super Eagles at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium on Sunday.
The mouth-watering clash is effectively a rematch of their Group A encounter, where Nigeria grinded out a 1-0 victory, but the stakes are higher this time around with the continent’s holy grail up for grabs.
Much has happened to the tournament’s hosts since that defeat to Super Eagles as they’ve gone from being at the cusp of early elimination to sticking their necks out to reassure themselves of winning the trophy.
Contrastingly for Super Eagles, many Nigerians did not give them any chance of making significant impact in Ivory Coast as a result of their shambolic performance heading to the continent’s premier championship.
They also did not start the competition on an impressive note with their 1-1 opening match draw against Equatorial Guinea.
However, Jose Peseiro’s men went into their shells to adjust and came back stronger from then on to become favorite for the trophy.
Ivory Coast’s sensational run to the final has left many people scratching their heads as to how they achieved the feat, considering their topsy-turvy group phase performance.
After back-to-back defeats against Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants dismissed head coach Jean Louis Gasset due to ‘insufficient results’.
Ivory Coast handed the reins to former Reading midfielder Emerse Rae temporarily, and that decision marked a significant turning point for the hosts, who are now one match away from a third AFCON title.
While Super Eagles will be hoping that goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali continue his heroic between the sticks with William Troost-Ekong led defense remain resolute and Osimhen with his flankers continue to be a threat to opponent’s defense, Fae will retain trust in his side that has the likes of Evan Ndicka, Serge Aurier, Seko Fofana, Sebastian Haller and Simon Adingra.
Nigeria and Ivory Coast will be meeting for the eighth time at the AFCON, with the Super Eagles boasting a better record of three victories to the Ivorians’ two.
The most recent 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’ve 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.
Sunday’s final at Ebimpe will cap a three-week long experience of football artistry, with full of memorable moments that will further confirm the richness in football qualities in Africa.