Home Football AFCON 2023: Eagles believe Elephants will fall under intense firepower in Ebimpe

AFCON 2023: Eagles believe Elephants will fall under intense firepower in Ebimpe

AFCON 2023: Eagles believe Elephants will fall under intense firepower in Ebimpe

Nigeria and hosts Côte d’Ivoire clash in one of the most anticipated matches of the 34th Africa Cup of Nations on Thursday, in a 60,000-capacity stadium that organisers say will be filled to the brim just before kick-off. It is the Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Ebimpe, outside Abidjan, where both teams played their first games of the competition with differing fortunes.

The Elephants celebrated a 2-0 win over Guinea Bissau’s Wild Dogs on the opening day of the tournament, while the Eagles forced Equatorial Guinea’s Thunder to a 1-1 draw on Day 2.

It has been 40 years since Cote d’Ivoire last hosted African football’s flagship championship. That year, a youthful Nigerian team prevailed over Cup holders Ghana and drew with Malawi and Algeria to reach the semi-finals of an eight-nation competition, before coming from behind to draw 2-2 with Egypt’s Pharaohs and then emerge victorious on penalties in Bouake. They lost the Final 1-3 to Cameroon. Today, the AFCON is a 24-nation final tournament.

There was no Nigeria-Cote d’Ivoire clash in 1984, with the Elephants given the heave-ho in the group stages, but Cote d’Ivoire has been an ever-present in all AFCON competitions in which Nigeria has emerged champions. The two countries clashed in 1980 (also the second match of the group phase as will be Thursday’s encounter), in 1994 (semi-finals) and in 2013, when Cote d’Ivoire’s golden generation shockingly fell to the Super Eagles in an epic quarter-final in Rustenburg.

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Nigeria’s goal against Thunder came from the head of Africa Player of the Year, Victor Osimhen, who made his account 21 goals in 28 matches for homeland at senior level, and the Eagles will still set much store by him as they hunt for three crucial points against the two-time champions.

Osimhen was top scorer in qualifying with 10 goals, and is expected to be eager to add to his one goal at the AFCON, having only played a cameo role in 2019 and then missed outright the 2021 finals in Cameroon.

On the two previous occasions that Nigeria had arrived at the Africa Cup of Nations with the Africa Player of the Year (1994 and 2000; Rashidi Yekini and Nwankwo Knau respectively), they made it all the way to the Final, winning one and losing the latter on penalties.

At Wednesday’s pre-match conference in Abidjan, Coach José Peseiro disclosed that hard-as-nails midfielder Alhassan Yusuf, who impressed against Thunder on Sunday, is out of reckoning due to injury he copped in the encounter. “Yusuf is out of the game tomorrow. He is fine but not ready for tomorrow’s match. He will be ready for the last group match.”

Peseiro stated further: “We have what it takes to win the game tomorrow and there’s nothing to change in my team because we created lot of goalscoring opportunities in our game against Equatorial Guinea and we hope to utilise the opportunities this time and score goals.”

Captain Max Alain Gradel, who has 105 caps and was part of the Elephants’s squad that won the trophy in Equatorial Guinea in 2015, said: “We are Cote d’Ivoire. We respect all our opponents. But we fear nobody. We will do what we have to do.

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“It is a special moment for us to play the Africa Cup of Nations in our home, with the support of our people. We will do everything to make the people proud. We have super players in the squad, especially for what they bring to the group. It is a decisive match; it is an important match. We know what we have to do.”

Coach Jean-Louis Gasset said: “We are relieved; the pressure was so strong. We had seven players who started the match (against Guinea Bissau) who were playing in their first AFCON. Not everything went well, but we are relieved. All the matches we have seen have a different scenario. In the match of Nigeria, they had one or two opportunities against Equatorial Guinea. If you don’t make your superiority count, the opponent will become confident. There are no more small teams.”

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