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Nigeria vs Ivory Coast: Star men, key battles and how the AFCON final will be won and lost

This year’s Africa Cup of Nations has been packed with incredible nail-biting drama, and we now have a showpiece final ahead of us.

Nigeria, who are hoping to win the competition for a fourth time, face host nation and two-time winners Ivory Coast in the deciding game on Sunday night.

These two sides already met in the group stage, with Nigeria winning 1-0, and have been on completely different journeys to reach the final.

Jean-Louis Gasset was in charge of Ivory Coast for that match but he was sacked and replaced by his assistant Emerse Fae, on an interim basis, following a humiliating 4-0 defeat against Equatorial Guinea in their final group game that left them sweating on qualification for the knockout phase as one of the best third-place finishers. The hosts then sparked into life, though; after beating defending champions Senegal on penalties in the last 16, they squeezed past Mali in thrilling fashion in a quarter-final that also went to extra time, before winning 1-0 against DR Congo in the last four.

Nigeria, who are unbeaten in the tournament and have only conceded two goals in their six matches, have been rugged and composed throughout, with their only real scare coming in the semi-finals when they edged South Africa out on penalties after an extraordinary game.

Will Ivory Coast become the first host nation to be crowned champions of Africa since Egypt in 2006? Or will Nigeria spoil the party to add to their triumphs in 1980, 1994 and 2013?

Here, The Athletic previews the most eagerly anticipated AFCON final in years.

Why should I be excited about the final?

Both sides are packed with quality and Ivory Coast have improved significantly since the group stage. And with attackers Sebastien Haller and Simon Adingra fully fit, the team posed a much bigger threat in their semi-final against DR Congo. Although the hosts only scored once, they had 14 shots in the game, with Haller and Adingra guilty of missing a couple of good chances and Franck Kessie hitting the post.

Adingra on the ball for Ivory Coast against DR Congo (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Nigeria were supposed to be the great entertainers at this tournament because of the incredible amount of talent they have in attack. And while Jose Peseiro’s team have clicked in spells, watching them leaves you with the distinct impression they could play even better.

Both these sides have been in decent form in the knockout stage, and it is difficult to tell who has the edge.

Overall, this really is the dream final — the hosts, who have come back from the brink of group-stage elimination, playing the most talented team in the competition, who also happen to represent the most populous country in Africa.

What have Nigeria got going for them?

Peseiro’s side, who as mentioned have only conceded twice in the tournament, use a 3-4-3 formation that is difficult to break down and contributes to their counter-attacking threat, which is formidable.

Ademola Lookman, Victor Osimhen and Moses Simon have the freedom to stay high up the pitch because of the organised structure behind them and, when they receive the ball, can quickly take advantage of opponents who are out of position.

Lookman celebrates after scoring against Angola (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Osimhen is one of the brightest talents in world football and it was his dazzling dribble that won Nigeria a penalty at a crucial moment in their semi-final.

Lookman is his country’s top scorer so far at the tournament, finding the net three times, including twice in the stunning 2-0 victory over Cameroon in the last 16.

If Ivory Coast are to have any chance of winning, they simply have to keep these two quiet.

What have Ivory Coast got going for them?

“This qualification has come from God and all things are possible now.”

Ever since Ivory Coast scraped into the knockout stage as one of the group phase’s four best third-placed sides, there has been a feeling within the host country that they are destined to win this AFCON. They have been on the brink of elimination multiple times, but have always found a way to survive.

Kessie scored a late equaliser against Senegal, they defeated Mali despite playing the majority of the match with 10 men after Odilon Kossounou was sent off, while Haller’s volley bounced over DR Congo’s goalkeeper Lionel Mpasi in the semi-final.

Two and a half weeks ago, Ivory Coast were a laughing stock in their own tournament. Now they are one victory away from becoming champions of Africa. Backed by a vociferous home crowd and with a belief that luck is on their side, the host nation are confident they can complete what would be an astonishing redemption arc.

Which Nigerian players should I pay most attention to?

Osimhen, the reigning men’s African Footballer of the Year, has only scored once in this competition but has performed a vital role for Nigeria. The 25-year-old presses defenders relentlessly, creating space for his team-mates to exploit — and it was this that led to Lookman’s first goal against Cameroon.

Interim coach Fae has made multiple changes to his Ivory Coast defence over the last three games, due to injuries and suspension, and now needs to work out the best formula for stopping Osimhen.

Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali is also an important figure. The 27-year-old, whose only previous cap was in 2021, has replaced Francis Uzoho as No 1 this year and so far has coped with the pressure.

Nwabali saves for Nigeria in the semi-final shootout against South Africa (Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

He was the hero of the shootout triumph over South Africa in the semi-finals, and if Nwabali can deliver once more it will crown what has been an incredible debut tournament for him.

Which Ivorian players should I pay most attention to?

Thirteen months ago, Haller made his comeback for German club Borussia Dortmund after undergoing multiple operations and rounds of chemotherapy to remove a testicular tumour. It is a remarkable story of recovery which would be capped off in the grand manner if he can lead Ivory Coast to glory.

Haller only made his first appearance of this tournament in the round of 16 because of an ankle injury, but made an immediate impact with an intelligent through ball in the build-up to Nicolas Pepe winning a penalty. The 29-year-old is physically dominant and his former Eintracht Frankfurt head coach Niko Kovac once said “even a bulldozer wouldn’t be able to move (him).”

His duels with Nigeria’s captain and centre-back William Troost-Ekong will be fun to watch, and if he wins enough headers in the opposition half, his team-mates should find themselves in promising situations.

Kessie has also played well and Jean Michael Seri has greatly improved the team’s balance since he started operating at the base of the midfield.

What is the final’s key head-to-head battle?

Adingra performed a limited role for Ivory Coast at the beginning of the tournament because he was still recovering from a hamstring injury but, during the knockout stage, he became more important and made the starting line-up for the first time in the semi-final. The 22-year-old’s slick tricks and neat combinations with Haller and Kessie make Ivory Coast more effective going forward.

Ola Aina, Nigeria’s right wing-back, likes to push forward and support Lookman or Simon on the overlap. Adingra will need to track back to help his defence but be ready to take advantage of the space Aina vacates. The ideal scenario for him is that he evades Aina and has multiple opportunities to run directly at centre-backs Semi Ajayi, Calvin Bassey and Troost-Ekong.

Some stats to keep in mind

Nigeria have not conceded a goal from open play at this tournament since the 36th minute of their first group game, when Ivan Salvador scored for Equatorial Guinea.

All four of Ivory Coast’s previous Africa Cup of Nations finals have ended 0-0 and gone to penalties. They won two of those shootouts (1992 and 2015, both against Ghana) and lost two (2006 against Egypt, and 2012 against Zambia).

How can I watch the final in the UK, U.S. and the competing nations?

Viewers in the United Kingdom will be able to watch the final live on Sky Sports, BBC Three or via BBC iPlayer.

Fans in the United States can follow the action on beIN Sports. However, it is only accessible through streaming services Fubo TV and Sling TV. People in Nigeria can tune in on AfroSport, and if you are in Ivory Coast then Canal+ has got you covered.

Be sure to follow The Athletic’s live blog which, as well as detailing all the on-pitch action, will include reports on the atmosphere inside the stadium, news of any tension between the two benches and also any interesting tactical tweaks that are made during the game.

Some pre-match reading ahead of the final…

(Top photos: Getty Images)

Read the full article here

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