Soccer

Ivory Coast ‘united’ and one match away from Africa Cup of Nations glory

The hosts face Nigeria as they bid to complete one of the great comebacks in the tournament’s history.

Sebastien Haller steered Ivory Coast into an improbable AFCON final (Sunday Alamba/AP)
APTOPIX Ivory Coast AFCON Soccer Sebastien Haller steered Ivory Coast into an improbable AFCON final (Sunday Alamba/AP) (Sunday Alamba/AP)

Hosts Ivory Coast will continue to draw strength from adversity as they seek to complete one of the great Africa Cup of Nations comebacks against Nigeria in Abidjan on Sunday.

The Elephants looked down and out after a 4-0 group stage defeat to Equatorial Guinea that led to the sacking of Jean-Louis Gasset and left their tournament destiny out of their hands.

But after squeezing through as one of the best-placed third-placed sides, Emerse Fae has led his side past defending champions Senegal and within 90 minutes of an improbable third continental crown.

Emerse Fae has sparked an extraordinary change in the Ivory Coast’s fortunes (Sunday Alamba/AP)
Ivory Coast AFCON Soccer Emerse Fae has sparked an extraordinary change in the Ivory Coast’s fortunes (Sunday Alamba/AP) (Sunday Alamba/AP)

Fae, who was given the role on a temporary basis when his side’s future in the tournament was still unsure, said the uncertainty had proved a uniting force in turning their campaign around.

“The way we qualified, I think at a certain point our destiny no longer depended on us, so we said to ourselves that we are already dead anyway,” Fae told a press conference.

“So we decided to give it our all, because we had nothing left to lose in the end. Gradually, we remobilised, we tried to become a more united group, and the results gave us a little more confidence.”

Nigerian hopes rest with striker Victor Osimhen (Themba Hadebe/AP)
Ivory Coast AFCON Soccer Nigerian hopes rest with striker Victor Osimhen (Themba Hadebe/AP) (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Belief may be sweeping around the host nation but Fae’s side face a mighty challenge in the shape of Nigeria, whose tournament experience has been the opposite of their opponents.

The Super Eagles eased through the group stages, including a 1-0 win over Sunday’s opponents, but were pushed to the limit in a nervy semi-final shoot-out win over South Africa.

Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro is relishing the emotions of his first Africa Cup of Nations experience and says he is undaunted by what is likely to prove a frenzied atmosphere in the Ivorian capital.

“I always prefer to play in a full stadium rather than an empty one, and my players must show the same desire and commitment on the pitch,” said Peseiro.

Nigeria head coach Jose Peseiro is relishing the AFCON atmosphere (Sunday Alamba/AP)
Ivory Coast AFCON Soccer Nigeria head coach Jose Peseiro is relishing the AFCON atmosphere (Sunday Alamba/AP) (Sunday Alamba/AP)

“This is my first AFCON, and the emotions in Africa are very special. There is joy when you win but it is difficult when you lose and it is important to find a balance.”

While the hosts are looking for their first tournament win since 2015 and a third overall, victory for Nigeria would bring their first since 2013.

Victor Osimhen is set to start again for Nigeria after missing the early part of the tournament with an abdominal injury, but wing-back Zaidu Sanusi continues to be a major doubt due to a hamstring injury.

For the Ivory Coast, Serge Aurier, Odilon Kossounou and Oumar Diakite all return from suspension, with Fae set to pick between Max Gradel or Nicolas Pepe to partner semi-final match-winner Sebastien Haller up front.