The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations has been an incredibly nail-biting tournament packed with drama, it has defied all odds and written beautiful stories. It all comes to an exciting climax on Sunday evening when Nigeria do battle against Ivory Coast in Abidjan.
For the Super Eagles, this is their eighth appearance in an AFCON final while Ivory Coast will be aiming to stop their opponents from a fourth continental triumph. The Elephants are in fact looking to go level with Nigeria on three AFCON wins after doing so in 1992 and 2015.
At the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpé, there is a chance at history for the spirited Ivorians who can become the first host nation to be crowned champions of Africa since Egypt in 2006. It is however pertinent to note that all four of Ivory Coast’s previous AFCON finals ended goalless and went to penalties.
This will once again be the ideal scenario for them to overcome the unbeaten Super Eagles.
The journey so far
Kelechi Iheanacho came off the bench for his first minutes of this competition and scored the winning penalty which handed Nigeria a 4-2 penalty shootout victory over South Africa in a thrilling semi-final on Wednesday night in Bouake.
After getting called off the bench 102 minutes into the action against South Africa, the Leicester City forward calmly converted the decisive spot-kick to spark wild scenes among Nigeria fans across the world.
He was one of many heroes on the night and none more than Stanley Nwabali who saved two penalties in the shootout from Teboho Mokoena and Evidence Makgopa.
Nigeria are unbeaten in the tournament having conceded only two goals from six matches, their composure and killer instincts have served them so well and they survived their first big scare in an extraordinary semi-final against South Africa.
Jose Peseiro’s tinkering to a 3-4-3 formation has proved the masterstroke of the tournament as it made the Super Eagles difficult to break down and contributed to a formidable counter-attacking threat.
The pace, trickery, lethal movement and clinical goalscoring possessed by the front trio of Moses Simon, Ademola Lookman and Victor Osimhen has allowed them the freedom to harness the organised structure behind them and punish retreating defenders when they get the ball.
In the showpiece game of the tournament, however, the Super Eagles will be playing against the Ivory Coast and Ivorian fans. Their previous Group A game on Matchday 2 (a 1-0 win for Nigeria) saw a sea of locals drain out Nigeria fans in the 60,000-seater Alassane Ouattara Stadium.
This match may be slightly different in the stands but the contrast is set to be even wider on the pitch as Les Éléphants have gained much more confidence in the knockout stage.
Sebastien Haller fired the hosts into this final with a 1-0 win over the Democratic Republic of Congo to set up a dream match-up for the coveted trophy. Ivory Coast have sensationally come back from the brink of group-stage elimination and will now play the most talented team in the competition.
A 4-0 humiliation by Equatorial Guinea in their final group game saw the Ivorians sack Jean-Louis Gasset and replace him with his assistant, Emerse Fae, on an interim basis but they squeezed into the knockout phase as one of the best third-placed teams.
The former Ivory Coast midfielder then sparked the side into life as they incredibly defeated defending champions Senegal on penalties in the Last 16. They got the better of Mali 2-1 in extra time despite being one man down for large periods, before beating DR Congo 1-0 in the semis.
Fae deserves huge credit for his impact on the Ivorian team as bold player selections and fearless tactics have revitalized their campaign. There has also been the immeasurable effect of the returns to fitness of Sebastien Haller and Simon Adingra who have given the side a much bigger attacking threat.
Franck Kessie has played well in the knockout stage while Jean Michael Seri has improved the team’s balance from the base of the midfield. Their Caretaker manager has had to make multiple changes to his backline due to injuries and suspension over the last three games and he now needs to find the best combination to stop the relentless Nigeria team.
Nevertheless, the tournament hosts feel like they are destined to win this title given how they have found a way to survive having been on the brink of elimination multiple times. Now they will be backed by a vociferous home crowd full of belief that luck can deliver a third AFCON title.
Who is finishing the triumphant story?
Sebastien Haller only made his comeback 13 months ago following multiple operations and rounds of chemotherapy to remove a testicular tumour. Leading his country to glory on home soil will complete a remarkable story of recovery for him and the team at the AFCON.
The Borussia Dortmund striker had a slow start to the tournament due to an ankle injury that kept him out until the Round of 16 but he has made an immediate impact with his physical presence up front.
Hence, Haller’s duels with William Troost-Ekong will be fun to watch as the Nigeria captain looks to complete a fantastic individual campaign by lifting the famous trophy on Sunday night.
With a previously underperforming side that has lived up to their talent coming up against a team that just won’t bow out of their own AFCON, fans are eagerly anticipating a memorable clash between two footballing giants.
Indeed, the hosts versus the most populous country in Africa is a match made in heaven for the tournament organizers. A befitting final awaits
Meanwhile, you have the chance to win a free jersey during the buildup to the biggest game in African football. You can enter the competition by participating on Twitter (formerly X).
🚨 GIVEAWAY— The Football Castle (@Footiecastle) February 10, 2024
Stand a chance to win a free jersey by guessing the first goalscorer of Nigeria vs Ivory Coast in The Football Castle’s #AFCON2023 final giveaway.
– You must be following @footiecastle
– Repost this tweet
– Make the first correct guess pic.twitter.com/druit0F59q