ABIDJAN, Côte d’Ivoire – Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire will battle for 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) glory when they meet in the final, set for the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan on Sunday.
Côte d’Ivoire is on the verge of a scarcely believable third AFCON title, but the Elephants must first continue their remarkable run by beating old rival Nigeria in the final.
The Super Eagles are confident of capturing what would be their fourth continental crown. Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro has reshaped the team into a hard-working defensively stable unit, and he can count on African player of the year Victor Osimhen to lead the attack and torment the Ivorian defenders.
Nigeria overcame a tough challenge from South Africa to reach the final for the first time since 2013.
The Super Eagles were taken to the full 120 minutes by Bafana Bafana, as the teams drew 1-1 (with William Troost-Ekong scoring their goal from the spot) after extra time, but the West Africans prevailed 4-2 on penalties.
Hollywood screenwriters would find their passage to potential glory barely plausible, but the Ivorians are one game away from the continent’s top prize despite being on the verge of elimination on several occasions over the last month.
They scraped through the group phase; staged thrilling come-from-behind wins in the last-16 and quarter-final and is now looking to complete one of the great comebacks in the tournament’s storied history.
“I don’t have the words, I still have trouble taking it all in,” Côte d’Ivoire’s coach Emerse Fae admitted according to Reuters.
Fae was catapulted into the job after 70-year-old Frenchman Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked as the Ivorians waited for three days to find out whether they would qualify from the group phase as one of the best third-placed sides.
When they did, they went on to beat holders Senegal on penalties and then snatch a quarter-final win over neighbours Mali, where they were down to 10 men for most the match, equalised in the 90th minute and then netted the winner at the end of extra time.
“It’s incredible, to reach the final in your country’s tournament. It’s an immense joy. The players have done extraordinary things,” added Fae, 40.
The Ivorians lost to Nigeria in their second group game when a cagey contest was decided by a penalty, only awarded after a lengthy VAR review.
Nigeria employed a clever tactical plan, which included an uncharacteristic five-man defence and extensive use of the flanks to attack.
Their X-factor, however, remains striker Osimhen, who has had an outstanding tournament despite scoring only once.
The reigning African Footballer of the Year has an eye-catching work rate and is a constant menace for opposing defenders although he struggled with a stomach complaint in their semi-final success over South Africa.
Nigeria was taken to extra time and penalties on Wednesday before securing their final berth while the Ivorians beat the Democratic Republic of Congo 1-0 in the regulation 90 minutes, handing them a slight advantage.
With the tournament being played in hot temperatures and with high levels of humidity, fatigue has been noticeable for teams playing again a few days after being forced into extra time.
The tournament was also marked by a series of early shock results that created excitement that has barely waned over the last month of football.
The Ivorians are the first hosts since Egypt in 2006 to reach the final and are chasing a third Cup of Nations success after winning in 1992 and 2015. Nigeria have won three titles, the last of which was in 2013.
“The players deserve to be in the finals, it’s a very good victory against a good team,” said Nigeria coach Peseiro.
“I said it earlier that South Africa has the best of organisation because they play together and they created more problems for us. It was very difficult to beat them.”
“It has been with me since growing up, I need to win something with the Super Eagles,” said Nigeria striker Victor Osimhen.
“We are happy, we’re really moved. It’s like a dream, when you go back two weeks to the defeat here against Equatorial Guinea,” said Côte d’Ivoire caretaker coach Emerse Fae. “It was hard then to imagine that we might qualify for the final of our own AFCON.”
“As long as you still have a five or 10 per cent chance you need to keep believing because that is what makes football beautiful,” said Côte d’Ivoire midfielder Franck Kessie.