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Written by Oluwaseun Oyediji

For the fifth time this century, the finalists of an Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) have emerged from the same group, although on this occasion neither of them actually topped Group A.

Nigeria

Drawn as the ‘home team’ for this final but with the majority of the 60,000 spectators in Abidjan’s Alassane Ouattara Stadium against them, Nigeria have already demonstrated they know how to silence a hostile crowd when they defeated host nation Cote d’Ivoire 1-0 at this very venue last month.

That was to be the first of five consecutive games at this tournament in which they didn’t concede a single goal from open play, illustrating where their strengths lie in their pursuit of a fourth AFCON crown.

It was a semi-final penalty shootout against South Africa that propelled them into their first AFCON final since winning the tournament in 2013, and they’ll be hoping to avoid a repeat of the previous AFCON to take place in Ivory Coast, when they finished as runners-up.

Player to watch

Nigerian winger Ademola Lookman opened the scoring in two of their three knockout stage wins, against Cameroon and Angola as he scord two to show the Indomitable Lions their way out of the competition.

What they said

Nigeria coach, Jose Peseiro

“I am happy the team is happy also to reach the final. They have done a fantastic and amazing job but we want to win this AFCON,” Peseiro said.

“He (Zaidu Sanusi )trained yesterday and today we will have the last practice. We will check if he can play.

“We are happy to play this final. Our opponents’ coach, Emerse Fae is also doing well. Congratulations to them for reaching the final. We are both favourites with 50% chances for each team but we want to win the AFCON.

“We have played 14 matches and lost one. With this form, we want to win the AFCON.

“If games go well, fans are happy but when it doesn’t go well, they attack us. It’s life. I am prepared for everything. The situation doesn’t fill my mind. My mind is only focused on tomorrow’s match against Cote d’Ivoire. A tough match with a good team since the first game of the competition. Only one thing is important for us, I want to win and we want to win the match. I will do my best with the team and players as they will be on the field.

“We will try to play within the atmosphere. Though they will try to shout at us but it is a good atmosphere for the final. We will concentrate on our job on the field with our sacrifice and spirit.

“Ahmed Musa for us is a much more great player. He advised me about the team.” He concluded.

Captain, Ahmed Musa

“Like I said since the beginning of the tournament, we just want to win the title. Insha Allah, we will do that,” Musa posited.

“There is nothing special. It’s just for us to go out there. We know that the fans will support our opponents but won’t be on the field to play the match. We are just focused and will do what we know how to do best on the pitch.

“This is one of my best AFCONs. A lot of surprises from the beginning of the tournament till the end. For me, the most important thing is to win tomorrow because it is important for Nigerians. We deserve it and will be out there to give our best.

“The Ivorien side is still the same with some tactical changes after some players joined. There is nothing new about them. We just have to go back and watch the last game we played against them and their few games where they made changes.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I am a patient person. I have played for most of my teammates to win. Now if any player plays for me to win I don’t think there is anything bad in that. For me, the most important thing is to win. I respect my coach’s decisions.” He concluded.

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Cote d'Ivoire

Even the most optimistic football fan from Cote d'Ivoire must have thought their AFCON dreams went up in smoke two weeks ago.

The host nation scraped through a near-disastrous group stage campaign (a win and two losses) in which they sacked manager Jean-Louis Gasset only to claim the 16th and last place in the knockouts.

But they rallied to knock out reigning champions Senegal in the last 16, before a quarter-final win over Mali booked a semi-final date with DR Congo, who they beat 1-0 to secure just their second regulation time win of the entire tournament and book their spot in their first AFCON final since their 2015 title.

In doing so, the two-time AFCON champions became the first host nation since Egypt in 2006 to reach the final match of the tournament.

Egypt lifted the trophy in that edition after a penalty shootout win over Ivory Coast, whose playing squad featured current caretaker manager Emerse Faé.

Perhaps spurred on by the heartbreak of that final loss, and the recent defeat to Nigeria, Faé has been careful to assert that it’s not necessarily their ‘destiny’ to win a home AFCON. But as home nations have a 10-3 record in AFCON finals, they could hold a significant advantage!

Players to watch

Cote d'Ivoire midfielder Franck Kessié is the only player to score for Ivory Coast in two 2024 fixtures and is expected to play a key role in the final.

What they said

Coach Emerse Fae

“Yes it is true. We have a beautiful opportunity tomorrow to keep the cup at home. We know it is hard to win a tournament you are hosting at home. We are prepared today to achieve this exploit to add to our stars,” Fae said.

“Talking about the psychological aspect. Nigeria had a near perfect tournament after a draw with Equatorial Guinea and became more stronger defensively and offensively. On our side we had a difficult start and became stronger at the Round of 16 against Senegal before winning Mali and became more confident against DR Congo. In the final, details matter. We will try our best to wear them out tactically. The final is 90 minutes. We know that there will be pressure on both sides.

“It is hard to reach the final and to feel as though you don’t deserve to be there. We do deserve to be here. The most important thing after the group stage is to rediscover our confidence. The technical staff is to build the team spirit. I won’t say we thought of getting to the final. We were focussing on the game at time and focused on winning the next game.

“We had a meeting with the technical team. We had idea of the skeleton on the team that will start tomorrow. We have few injuries against DR Congo. We will access the squad after today’s last training session to know the players that will play. It is a group of 27 players, they are all together as a collective group to win. We have a broad team. All of these players are useful.

“That’s a tough question. The easy answer is no. I am not a special one. I am fortunate to know the team for about two years now. When we took over, we knew the players well. We tried to focus on building this team chemistry. I haven’t invented anything but doing the most basic thing. The most important thing is the group and making sure that all players feel important and equal to feel that they are on the same playing field. I don’t think I am a special coach.

“No, irrespective of the game, we think alot with the technical team. The fact that Nigeria beat us in the group stage. We know the team we are playing against. We are going to focus on our strengths, weaknesses and see how we can get a win.

“Disappointment, no because I will still have the cup at home. After tomorrow’s game, we will relax and think about the future. Right now, we are now focused on the final tomorrow. What happens after that doesn’t matter and we are not thinking about that.

“You know motivation comes from every end. When we look at what happens from statistics, we draw hope from all of that to prepare for tomorrow and find the right behaviour that will allow us win the trophy. That’s our extra source of motivation to make us get the trophy.

“For the group and staffs before we made this list we thought of whether or not to call up Adingra or Haller. We knew that they won’t start but decided to call them as we were aware that we will need them in the latter round of the competition. They have played pivotal rols scoring in the quarter and semi final. We are very happy having our fire powers are back.

“I believe the main lesson from our last game against Nigeria is that in this competition you have to expect the unexpected. We prepared based on what was happening recently. Nigeria changed formation which took us apart. We had to be ready to have tactical dispensation that could change for tomorrow’s game. We will try to challenge them, control the game, patient at the beginning and focus on our strengths.” He concluded.

Forward, Sebastien Haller

“I believe it is both an advantage for Nigeria and Cote D’Ivoire. Group stage match and a final match are different thing. Preparation will be different and we will see how tomorrow will be,” Haller stated.

“I am expecting a tough game obviously. We also know the way Nigerians play. It is going to be a physically demanding game. It is up to us to give them problems and utilize their weaknesses. Even though the defenders have similar physique as I am, we will make sure we play a great game tomorrow.

“Yes, we have come from far. Everyone realize that we went through trying times after that defeat to Equatorial Guinea. We came from far so we don’t have much to lose. We just want to give our all. We were fortunate to have a second chance and give our all. We were More tightly knitted after facing the nightmare of almost exiting the tournament.

“Well, Cote D’Ivoire went through trying times that has made us stronger. What doesn’t kill you make you stronger. That’s what has changed from the group stage. The mindset also changed. We are doing this for our country. It is such a great objective that we have to amend the things that are basic in our view.

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“To be honest, it wasn’t always easy. I have decided to spend my vacation in Cote D’Ivoire to prepare for this AFCON. I am fortunate to have a family and country with teammates that are supporting me. When you feel that you are important and given that strength everyday to see that you are not wasting your time. I have been working with the medical team and want to contribute to this AFCON at home. Everything was a motivation to me. All the energy invested by everyone give you the motivation to excel.

“Yes of course I feel the pressure. I am a striker. Everything that pertains to scoring goals. This pressure have to be taken by everyone. Strikers are always in front. It is a good pressure with lot of people supporting you everyday. I hope this good pressure brings my country to the top.

“I am quite tired of it. It has been a challenging year. I have this mindset that someone must be happy in anything one does. It is kind of a great moment today to speak about the AFCON final at home. It will take a few months and years to realize what has happened.

“First of all, it is also a way to materialize our domination. We felt that we had started on the front foot. The goal made the game easier for us. It was a bit of relief. When you score, it is a thing of joy. I was in the stands at the beginning of the tournament and understand the stress from fans. It is great to receive the reward for all of the efforts put in on a daily basis.

“Ivorians on the streets and at home supporting us gave us that atmosphere. At the stadium, it will be very unbelievable as everyone will be supporting us. We expect what we haven’t seen before to experience this unique atmosphere and moment.” He concluded.

Verdict

A slim win for either sides with the possibility of the game to be decided in extra time or penalties.

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