The Africa Cup of Nations champions will be crowned on Sunday when hosts Ivory Coast face Nigeria in the final at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan on Sunday.
The tournament has been full of drama, excitement, stoppage-time goals, VAR interventions and incredible storylines.
This year’s edition will come to be regarded as one of the greatest of all time and the final is set to be a fascinating encounter.
Both nations met in the group stages with Nigeria claiming a 1-0 victory over Ivory Coast courtesy of a penalty from captain William Troost-Ekong.
Will Nigeria come out on top once again on Sunday to become four-time champions or will Ivory Coast complete a sensational turnaround to win the tournament?
We take a look at the potential factors that will decide who will be crowned the Kings of Africa on Sunday.
Key players to watch
If the Super Eagles are going to win this final, Victor Osimhen will need to be on his best form on Sunday. At club level, Osimhen has shown that he should be considered one of the most lethal strikers in world football, as his goals last season led Napoli to their first Serie A title since 1990.
However, the current African Footballer of the Year has struggled for goals in the tournament with his only strike coming in Nigeria’s opening game against Equatorial Guinea, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Osimhen thought he had broken his knockout stage duck with a late goal in the semi-final to make it 2-0 but in a dramatic turn of events, his goal was ruled out by VAR and South Africa were awarded a penalty.
Osimhen’s celebrations before the VAR intervention showed how much he needed to score and he will be hopeful of hitting the back of the net in the final against the hosts. Luckily for Nigeria, other players have stepped up with Ademola Lookman bagging three goals while Alex Iwobi has also been a constant threat up top.
William Troost-Ekong (Nigeria)
One of the standout performers at this year’s AFCON has been Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong. Not only has the 30-year-old been a rock and a leader at the back, he has also taken responsibility at the other end and dispatched penalties at key moments for his nation.
The former Watford player scored the winning goal from the spot against the Ivorians in the group match and also converted two more penalties – one in the shoot-out – during Nigeria’s dramatic semi-final victory over South Africa. Interestingly enough, Troost-Ekong has scored four goals from his last five shots on target in his AFCON career so don’t expect him to be far away from the action on Sunday.
He has also been part of the meanest defence at AFCON this year with Nigeria only conceding two goals in normal time during their six matches so far. The phrase ‘defence wins championships’ comes to mind when watching Nigeria progress through the tournament and one more clean sheet will play a key role in helping Troost-Ekong lift the trophy on Sunday.
Sebastien Haller (Ivory Coast)
Sebastien Haller is on the brink of completing one of the most remarkable footballing stories in recent memory. In July 2022, the Borussia Dortmund striker was diagnosed with testicular cancer and his professional career was put on hold for treatment. He managed to return to full training in January 2023 and netted his first goal for the club against Freiburg on World Cancer Day.
The striker’s return saw him selected for this year’s AFCON but he was unable to feature in the group-stage matches after he suffered an ankle injury. His absence was there for all to see with the Ivorians failing to score in their last two group-stage games, but Haller made a timely return for the last-16 clash against Senegal. He came off the bench in the second half and stepped up to convert one of the penalties in the shoot-out as the hosts dumped the defending champions out of the tournament.
Haller made his first start in the semi-final against DR Congo and his second-half strike was enough to see Ivory Coast book their place in Sunday’s final. How fitting would it be for the 29-year-old to cap his unbelievable turnaround by grabbing the winning goal against the Super Eagles? The hosts will be hoping their striker has reached peak form at the right time, and he will be the biggest threat that Nigeria’s defence has faced so far at this tournament.
Simon Adingra (Ivory Coast)
Similar to Sebastien Haller, team-mate Simon Adingra has been forced to bide his time before lighting up AFCON with his performances this year. A hamstring injury forced him to miss the opening two matches of the tournament and he only featured for seven minutes as Ivory Coast were humbled 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea. However, his return to the team has seen an upturn in form and Ivory Coast haven’t looked back since.
The Brighton man can already consider himself a national hero after he kept the hosts in the competition with a stoppage-time equaliser in the quarter-final against Mali. Ivory Coast had been down to 10 men since the end of the first half but Adingra came off the bench to send the crowd wild with his strike before they went one further and won the game in the 120th minute to go through.
As expected, his confidence has continued to grow from that moment and he was one of the best players on the pitch in their semi-final win over DR Congo. He was brought off in the 80th minute of the game and received a thundering ovation from the home support, and they will be hopeful he can stay free of injury to deliver on the biggest stage on Sunday.
AFCON finals mean one thing… Penalties
Don’t be surprised if Sunday’s final is decided by the dreaded penalty shoot-out because they have almost become a guarantee in AFCON finals in recent years.
Six out of the previous 12 finals have come down to a penalty shoot-out including the 2021 edition where Sadio Mane converted the last spot-kick to see Senegal come out victorious against Mohamed Salah and Egypt.
Who could forget the dramatic shoot-out in the 2012 final where 17 penalties were taken as Zambia won the tournament for the first time against favourites Ivory Coast.
Three years later, the Ivorians enacted revenge in the final as they defeated Ghana 9-8 in a unforgettable shoot-out which saw goalkeeper Boubacar Barry save a penalty from the opposing keeper, before converting the winning penalty himself.
In fact, the 1992 final between the same countries produced similar drama in a shoot-out when Ivory Coast won 11-10 on penalties.
Even in normal time, decisions involving penalties have played a huge role in deciding the outcome of AFCON finals.
Liverpool star Salah missed a first-half penalty in the 2021 final while Senegal saw a penalty decision overturned by VAR as they suffered a 1-0 defeat to Algeria in the 2019 showcase.
Excluding shoot-outs, there have already been a total of 17 penalties converted at this year’s tournament.
Both Ivory Coast and Nigeria have needed to win shoot-outs to reach the final this year and with recent history in mind, they might need to go through the dreaded process one more time to decide the African champions on Sunday.
Nigeria and Ivory Coast will be meeting for the eighth time at AFCON with the Super Eagles boasting a better record of three victories to the Ivorians’ two.
The latest meeting saw the Super Eagles record a tense 1-0 win over Ivory Coast in this year’s group stages with William Troost-Ekong scoring the winner from the spot.
It has been a good omen for the Super Eagles to face the Elephants in the tournament as they’ve gone on to win the last three editions (1980, 1994, 2013) when they’ve faced the Ivorians.
Nigeria’s last AFCON final came in 2013 when they overcame Burkino Faso to win the tournament, while Ivory Coast’s previous final saw them win that dramatic penalty shoot-out against Ghana in 2015.
It has been quite the turnaround for Nigeria under the guidance of Jose Peseiro. Two months before his appointment, the Super Eagles were in turmoil after they failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup after falling to beat bitter rivals Ghana in the qualifier.
Nigerian supporters were furious and the result was marred by fans invading the pitch to vent their frustrations at the players and the situation. However, things have vastly improved since Peseiro’s arrival with the Super Eagles as they qualified for the AFCON finals with a match to spare.
Although Nigeria’s matches at this tournament haven’t been as exciting as the others – excluding the dramatic semi-final – Peseiro has managed to galvanise a group of talented players who play in the biggest leagues in the world, and turn them into a tough team to beat.
Even though talisman Victor Osimhen has only scored once at the tournament so far, Nigeria haven’t paid the price for his lack of goal threat with the back four providing a stable foundation.
Nottingham Forest’s Ola Aina has come into his own this tournament while Ademola Lookman, Calvin Bassey and Moses Simon have all played a key role in their progress to the final.
Peseiro must be given huge credit for getting the best out of this squad without Osimhen’s goals and he could crown the nation’s turnaround with Nigeria’s fourth AFCON title on Sunday.
Where do we even begin with Emerse Fae’s journey at this year’s AFCON? The 40-year-old came into this tournament as his nation’s assistant coach and now, he is one win away from guiding them to a third AFCON title.
The hosts’ dreams appeared to be in tatters when they suffered their worst-ever defeat in the tournament with a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Equatorial Guinea. The result led to the dismissal of head coach Jean-Louis Gasset two days later.
Fae was put in charge following Gasset’s exit and after Ghana’s stoppage-time collapse and Zambia’s defeat to Morocco, the former Reading man got the chance to lead his nation into the last 16 as they ranked among the four best third-placed sides.
The hosts battled hard and caused one of the many upsets of this year’s tournament by knocking defending champions Senegal out.
The best was yet to come for Fae’s team as they bounced back from a goal down and a man less to record a sensational 2-1 victory over Mali with two stoppage-time goals – one at the end of normal time and one at the end of extra time.
The stunning comeback had rejuvenated the nation and the stadium was packed for the semi-final as Sebastien Haller’s goal was enough to see them progress to Sunday’s final.
It is remarkable to think that Fae could become an AFCON-winning head coach after claiming victory in just his fourth game in charge. Having been forced to retire from professional football at the age of 28 due to injury, football has given Fae another shot at glory and he is determined to take it in front of his people.
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