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AFCON 2023 Finals: Nigeria vs. Ivory Coast, who takes the trophy?

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AFCON 2023 Finals: Nigeria vs. Ivory Coast, who takes the trophy?

Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final between Nigeria and Ivory Coast at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium is a rematch of their Group A encounter.

Much has changed since the Super Eagles defeated the Elephants earlier in the tournament, with the hosts surmounting obstacles when hope seemed to be lost, and they now appear to have momentum heading into the decider in Abidjan.

While fans of Ivory Coast felt making the decider was attainable before AFCON 2023 kicked off, it was different for the Super Eagles, who went from outsiders for the trophy to being the highest-ranked nation left in the competition after group-stage exits to Algeria and Tunisia and early elimination in the knockouts to Egypt, Morocco and defending champions Senegal.

Despite the three-time champions’ outstanding talent, reservations about Jose Peseiro’s team fuelled doubts about this side, whose performances and results leading to the finals left much to be desired.

However, the West African side have shown a different version of themselves at the tournament proper, creating chances in their opener against Equatorial Guinea without winning, altering their approach to defeat Ivory Coast and demonstrating defensive astuteness through their journey in the knockout rounds to bring them within touching distance of a fourth crown.

While much has been made of Stanley Nwabali’s impact between the sticks after his penalty-saving exploits against South Africa, the Chippa United goalkeeper’s assuredness has spread calm throughout a previously shaky backline.

The Super Eagles’ four-game run without conceding was halted in the semi-final, albeit by Teboho Mokoena’s 90th-minute penalty, making Nwabali’s only open-play concession Iban Salvador’s strike in the shot-stopper’s tournament debut.

More fascinating for Peseiro’s men is how they have made it this far despite Victor Osimhen not scoring since the 1-1 draw with Nzalang Nacional, even if the Napoli striker’s telling contributions are underscored by his tenacity without the ball, creating chances for teammates and causing panic for the opposition.

The current African Footballer of the Year has had several goals disallowed, typically due to his penchant for being caught offside, although he set up Ademola Lookman’s first against Cameroon in the round of 16 and has won decisive spot kicks against Sunday’s opponents and in Wednesday’s semi-final.

With or without scoring, Osimhen’s capacity to influence games could aid the Super Eagles’ bid for a fourth African title.

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