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Africa Cup of Nations

Osimhen’s Nigeria and hosts Ivory Coast ready for AFCON final

The Africa Cup of Nations concludes on Sunday as Ivory Coast aim to complete a remarkable turnaround in fortunes by becoming the first host nation to win the title in 18 years when they meet the Nigeria of Victor Osimhen in the final.

The match starts at 2000 GMT at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium on the outskirts of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s economic capital, the venue where Nigeria defeated the tournament hosts 1-0 during the group stage.

After a month of competition, the most thrilling AFCON in recent memory has thrown up a fascinating heavyweight final showdown between two West African footballing powerhouses.

Eleven years after they were last crowned continental champions, Nigeria are aiming to win their fourth title and in doing so match the tally of old rivals Ghana—only Egypt with seven, and Cameroon with five, have won the Cup of Nations more often.

Ivory Coast, meanwhile, will match Nigeria on three titles if they emerge victorious at the Cup of Nations for the first time since 2015.

The Elephants are the first host nation to make it to the final since 2006, when Egypt defeated the Ivorians on penalties in Cairo to take the trophy.

Yet they very nearly became just the second host country in 30 years to go out in the group stage after a disastrous 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea on January 22, their heaviest ever home defeat.

The shellshocked Ivorians parted company with coach Jean-Louis Gasset, all hope of reaching the last 16 apparently gone, before being rescued as a series of favourable results elsewhere allowed them to go through among the best third-placed sides.

Under interim coach Emerse Fae, their revival has been quite incredible.

Ivory Coast eliminated holders Senegal on penalties in capital Yamoussoukro in the last 16, then came from behind — despite being reduced to 10 men in the first half – to beat Mali 2-1 in Bouake in the quarter-finals, with a winner right at the end of extra time.

They then returned to Ebimpe to beat the Democratic Republic of Congo in the semis thanks to a solitary Sebastien Haller strike.

‘Backs against the wall’

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said Haller, the Borussia Dortmund striker, on Saturday.

“When you sink as low as we did, we no longer had any choice. Our backs were against the wall. We had to take a good look at ourselves and sort things out.”

Fae had never managed a team before being thrust into the spotlight mid-tournament.

A player alongside Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers in the Elephants side that lost that 2006 final, Fae is now hoping to follow in the footsteps of Senegal’s Aliou Cisse, who also lost a final as a player before winning as coach in Cameroon in 2022.

“We have a great opportunity to keep the trophy at home,” said Fae, who must surely now be a contender to take the job on a permanent basis whatever the outcome on Sunday.

Ivory Coast’s chaotic campaign has been in stark contrast to that of Nigeria under their veteran Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro.

Injuries and unconvincing form meant there were serious doubts about the Super Eagles coming into the tournament.

They began with a disappointing 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea, but Peseiro responded by deploying a new system featuring three central defenders, and the results have been outstanding.

Nigeria have only conceded one goal in their last five matches, and that was a penalty in the semi-final against South Africa.

Reigning African footballer of the year Osimhen has only scored one goal at this AFCON, but his tireless performances have been eye-catching with the Napoli striker clearly driven by a burning desire to win the title.

“We are happy with what we have done so far but now we just want to win,” admitted Peseiro on Saturday.

Nigeria were waiting on the fitness of wing-back Zaidu Sanusi, while Fae revealed that several Ivory Coast players had been struggling with knocks after the semi-final.

However, Serge Aurier, Odilon Kossounou, Christian Kouame and Oumar Diakite will hope to return after missing the DR Congo tie due to suspension.

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