Super Eagles out to stop Elephants’ charge as Nigeria meets Ivory Coast in Africa Cup final

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — A host nation holds its breath.

Ivory Coast is on the verge of a scarcely believable third Africa Cup of Nations title, but the Elephants must first continue their remarkable run by beating old rival Nigeria in Sunday’s final.

The Super Eagles are confident of capturing what would be their fourth continental crown. Portuguese coach José Peseiro has reshaped the team into a hard-working defensively stable unit, and he can count on African player of the year Victor Osimhen to lead the attack and torment the Ivorian defenders.

Locals were in a state of nervous excitement while claiming to be confident of victory. Young and old were wearing variations of the team’s distinctive orange shirt. Streets in Abidjan were adorned with Ivory Coast flags, which also flew from cars, motorbikes and trucks navigating the city’s usual gridlock.

Many believe God is behind the team after Ivory Coast’s unlikely route to the final.

Nigeria already defeated the host nation 1-0 in the group stage thanks to a second-half penalty from team captain William Troost-Ekong.

That was first game of four in which the Super Eagles didn’t concede a goal — a run ended only when South Africa’s Teboho Mokoena scored a last-minute penalty to send their semifinal into extra time. Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali made two penalty saves in the shootout to ensure Nigeria progressed.

The tension and drama in that semifinal were too much for some Nigerian fans. The team held a minute’s silence on Thursday for up to five supporters who died during the match.

Osimhen has only scored one goal in the tournament, but it’s not for a lack of trying. The Napoli forward had three goals ruled out for various reasons and has been inspiring the rest of the team with his tireless performances.

Ivory Coast’s loss to Nigeria in the group stage was just the start of the Elephants’ troubles. The team was shocked by Equatorial Guinea 4-0 in the next game — a result that left the host nation on the brink of a humiliating group-stage exit.

The Ivorian soccer federation reacted by firing coach Jean-Louis Gasset some days later, hours before the team improbably squeezed into the knockout round thanks to results in other groups.

The Ivorian federation, which had promoted Gasset’s assistant, Emerse Faé, to head coach on an interim basis, then tried to replace him by asking the French federation if it could borrow its women’s team coach, Hervé Renard, for the remainder of the tournament. The French refused, though Renard was keen to return.

Ivory Coast’s emotional rollercoaster ride between triumph and despair continued in the last-16 match against Senegal, arguably the best team in the competition. Senegal took a fourth-minute lead, but Franck Kessié scored a penalty to equalize in the 86th, then followed up with the winning penalty in the shootout.

More drama was to come in the quarterfinal with Mali, where Ivory Coast had a player sent off and fell behind to the Ivory Coast-born Nene Dorgeles’ brilliant strike for Mali in the 71st. But Simon Adingra’s last-minute equalizer sent the game to extra time, and Oumar Diakité scored in stoppage time of extra time to send the Elephants into the semifinals.

Sébastien Haller, who has recovered from an ankle injury, fired the team into the final with a 1-0 win over Congo.

It was the first game of the tournament that both Haller and Adingra were fit enough to start. Neither played in the group-stage defeat to Nigeria. Ivory Coast fans — who are sure to form a majority at the 60,000-capacity Alassane Ouattara Stadium — are hoping they’ll prove the difference this time around.


AP soccer:

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