Despite the excruciating hardship across the country, the past three weeks have seen a resurgence of patriotism among Nigerians. They have found a resurgence of hope in football.
A great percentage of the over 200 million people inhabiting the country are striving to survive the harsh economic situation, but the hard times have not stopped the citizens from rallying round their darling team, the Super Eagles, who, against all expectations, are contesting for the Africa Cup of Nations title with hosts, Cote d’Ivoire, in Abidjan, today.
Nigeria has been gripped by inflation with majority of the people living below the poverty line, but that has not mellowed the joy they display every Super Eagles’ match day. Today is one of such days, but the stakes are higher as the reward for victory is no longer three points or passage to another round, but the Holy Grail of African football.
A win today for the Super Eagles will not only fetch them N10 billion, but also give Nigerians something to celebrate and perhaps, usher in a new wave of optimism that it could bring a change in the country’s economic fortune.
Nigeria’s march to the final game of the Africa Cup of Nations have been a pleasant surprise to many of their followers, who derided and wrote the team off before the games began last month. The reason for such low regard for the team is that under the current coach, Jose Peseiro, Nigeria, ranked 42 in the world, had lost to such countries as Guinea Bissau and Guinea and only managed draws with Lesotho and Zimbabwe in their last four games prior to AFCON.
The withdrawals by top players like Wilfred Ndidi, Victor Boniface and Taiwo Awoniyi owing to injury, as well as the poor state of the team’s goalkeeping department were enough reasons to write the Super Eagles off. But here they are, changed in all facets, with a new goalkeeper that has not conceded any goal in open play since the 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea in their first match of the group stage of the championship.
The Super Eagles have had the upper hand in clashes with Cote d’Ivoire in the Africa Cup of Nations. In eight games, Nigeria has won three out of eight previous games, with two draws and two losses.
With the current African Footballer of the Year, Victor Osimhen, in their lineup, the Super Eagles are expected to be too strong for the Ivoirians, who conceded four goals against Equatorial Guinea. But the problem is that Nigeria is not a high scoring side. The Eagles relied on a penalty to beat the hosts in their first meeting in the competition.
Talisman, Osimhen, has scored only one goal in six games, although one can argue that he has been unlucky to have had two of his goals chalked off for offside. The Napoli strongman has, however, been a thorn in the flesh of opposing defenders, with his swashbuckling style earning Nigeria two penalties in the competition.
While they are not a high scoring side, the Super Eagles have made up with a stout defence that has been the meanest in the championship with only one goal conceded in open play. In Stanley Nwabali, Nigeria has a goalkeeper that has brought confidence to the team’s defence and the players now do their job knowing that they have a capable hand to make up for any lapse.
Although the Super Eagles are playing against the host nation, they will not lack in vocal support as many Nigerians, both from home and the countries bordering Cote d’Ivoire, have been trooping into Abidjan to lend their voices to the quest for success.
The players have also been assured that a grateful country will open the cash vaults to reward them if they win their fourth African title today. Already, they have earned a substantial sum from their fans, including the Progressive Governors’ Forum, who rewarded them with N250 million for beating South Africa in the semifinal.
Vice President, Kassim Shettima, who has been leading Nigerians in supporting the team from the stadia stands since the quarterfinals, has assured the team that the Federal Government will host and reward them adequately for their efforts in Cote d’Ivoire.
Shettima will be joined in the Eagles’ corner by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who, according to CAF President, Patrice Motsepe, will attend the final at the Alassanne Ouattara Stadium, Ebimpe.
Team captain, William Troost-Ekong, who has equaled Stephen Keshi’s record as the highest-scoring defender in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations, has assured Nigerians that the Super Eagles would rather die on the pitch than allow Cote d’Ivoire to beat them to the title.
Troost-Ekong, who is reportedly being courted by clubs in Saudi Arabia due to his sterling performances at the AFCON, has described winning the championship as an extraordinary and amazing moment for him and the country.
“You dream about moments like that. I’ve seen it so many times. And I’ve closed my eyes. To actually be there on Sunday and have the chance to do that will be amazing,” he said.
One of the most assured optimists and believers in the Super Eagles’ ability to win the championship is coach Peseiro, who from the onset has been drumming that the country will conquer Africa this term.
Explaining his belief in the team, Peseiro said: “When I signed the contract, I said I want to win the Afcon. Either way, I don’t know if everybody believed or not. I have believed since the first moment. We haven’t won nothing until now – we want to win the AFCON.”
Peseiro’s mandate is to take Nigeria to the semifinals of the championship and also qualify the Super Eagles for the 2026 World Cup. He has already achieved the former and is now on the verge of adding the cup to the bargain.
But his team will be up against a Cote d’Ivoire side that has been on the ascendancy since they managed to qualify for the round of 16 of the championship with three points.
The hosts were almost down and out of the race after losing two of their three first round games to Nigeria (1-0) and Equatorial Guinea (4-0), but they sneaked in as one of the best four third placed teams after the group stage.
Since then, they have not looked back. Since the exit of their technical adviser, Jean-Louis Gasset, sacrificed because for their poor group stage performance, the team has been a different side under Gasset’s former assistant, Emerson Fae.
Now, the fans, who went on rampage, destroying shops and vans after their 0-4 loss to Equatorial Guinea, have trooped back and are ready to push the Elephants to a third AFCON victory.
Describing the new wave of optimism among his compatriots as magical, former Cote d’Ivoire captain, Kolo Toure, told BBC that the loss to Equatorial Guinea “was a big wake-up call for the players because they saw that fans in the country were really, really angry.”
He said a few things that happened after that game has made the players to realise how important the tournament is for the country.
Toure, who was in Cote d’Ivoire’s last team to lift the trophy in 2015 alongside Coach Fae, said the team has been on a rollercoaster ride since the round of 16, beating such luminaries as Senegal, Mali and DR Congo to get to the final.
“Emerse has brought discipline both on and off the pitch to the team. He has brought tactical discipline because we have a midfield with really good players – Ibrahim Sangare, Franck Kessie and Seko Fofana – but against Equatorial Guinea, I felt those three were running all over the pitch with no discipline,” he said,
Nigeria is the overwhelming favourite to win the title, but Ivoirian midfielder, Franck Kessie disagrees.
“As long as you still have a five per cent or 10 per cent chance, you need to keep believing, because that is what makes football beautiful,” he said after the semifinal defeat of DR Congo on Wednesday.
Although this team lacks star performers like the 2015 set, they have built a unite that is hard to shove aside since Fae took over.
“We need to keep going like this, because you can’t go all the way to the final only to then give up,” Kessie says.
Dominant Arsenal thump Newcastle to close gap on title rivals
Arsenal proved their Premier League title credentials as they recorded their sixth straight win with a dominant display against Newcastle.
The result sees Mikel Arteta’s side sit two points behind leaders Liverpool and a point behind second-placed Manchester City at the top of the table.
The outcome of this contest appeared inevitable from the moment visiting defender Sven Botman turned the ball in after Gabriel’s header from a corner had been well saved by Newcastle goalkeeper Loris Karius.
While there was an element of bad luck to that for the Dutch defender, who simply could not get out of the way as his Newcastle team-mate Tino Livramento tried to clear, there was little else about Arsenal’s performance that was owed to good fortune.
The Gunners’ intensity and fluent passing repeatedly carved Eddie Howe’s side apart, particularly down the Magpies’ left flank with Livramento and Botman enduring difficult evenings.
Kai Havertz swept in a deserved second shortly after, with Gabriel Martinelli making the most of indecision in the Newcastle defence to cut the ball back into the German forward’s path.
With Arsenal continuing to press, Bukayo Saka twisted and turned Livramento one way and then another before dispatching a left-foot shot into the bottom left corner add to the hosts’ advantage.
Arteta also enjoyed the luxury of being able to take off his captain Martin Odegaard, Havertz and Saka well before full-time after Jakub Kiwior’s effort deflected past the helpless Karius from another Declan Rice corner.
Newcastle, who remain eighth in the table, managed a late consolation courtesy of Joe Willock’s looping header, but there was little else for the visiting supporters to cheer.
By this stage last term Arsenal’s title challenge had already begun to implode, with defeats by Everton and City sandwiched either side of a home draw against Brentford.
In the end they finished five points behind Pep Guardiola’s side, having enjoyed an eight-point advantage towards the end of January.
However, while their early-season form has not been as impressive this time around, they look to be peaking nicely for the run-in.
An outstanding sequence of results since January has included a deserved victory over Liverpool, and they have now scored 25 goals and conceded just three time in six matches in the English top flight.
Not only are they playing with the swagger of early last season, there seems to be a new resilience to this Arsenal team that has perhaps not been evident since their last title triumph in 2004.
At times in the intervening period, Arsenal have been notably targeted aerially by other Premier League sides at corners and free-kicks.
However, Arteta has a physically imposing side – with the likes of Gabriel, Ben White, Kiwior and William Saliba all capable in the air – and no side has scored more set-piece goals than the Gunners’ 19 this term.
Ruthless Arsenal trash Burnley to close gap at top of table
Bukayo Saka scored twice as Arsenal continued their blistering goalscoring form to thrash Burnley and close the gap at the top of the Premier League to two points.
Following their 6-0 win at West Ham last week Arsenal were soon among the goals again, captain Martin Odegaard opening the scoring on four minutes with a crisp strike into the bottom corner after Gabriel Martinelli’s pass.
Saka converted from the spot after Lorenz Assignon fouled Leandro Trossard in the box.
The England forward got his second just after the restart, latching on to a clever Odegaard pass then cutting inside and rifling a shot into the roof of the net.
Kai Havertz’s scuffed effort was blocked in the box but Trossard was alert to curl in for his third goal in as many league games.
Jakub Kiwior’s long throw down the line then found an unmarked Havertz, who ghosted in behind the defence and drilled past home goalkeeper James Trafford to complete a comprehensive win for the Gunners.
Arsenal, who have 21 goals in five straight wins, move two points behind leaders Liverpool, while Burnley remain in the relegation zone.
Arsenal have scored five or more goals in successive away league matches for the first time in their history
The Gunners, following up last week’s comprehensive win at London Stadium, have started a calendar year with five consecutive league wins for the first time in their history, and blew Burnley away with their slick football.
And the in-form Gunners may even have scored more at Turf Moor, with Trossard going close on two occasions before he eventually found the net.
Havertz continually caused problems by picking up pockets of space with his movement off the ball while Saka, Trossard and Martinelli interchanged in the box to regularly threaten.
Odegaard led by example, scoring his first goal since December 2 and providing the assist for Saka’s second strike.
Saka has scored in four consecutive league appearances for the first time in his career, netting six across those four games, more than in his previous 19 league games.
When Mikel Arteta’s side are on song, they are hard to stop.
Goalkeeper David Raya didn’t have a save to make as Arsenal kept consecutive top-flight clean sheets for just the second time this season.
Arteta’s side travel to Porto in the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday, before hosting Newcastle next Saturday (20:00 GMT) as they look to maintain their flawless start to the year.
Clarets suffer another damaging home defeat
Burnley were comprehensively beaten after putting in a dismal display at home, with manager Vincent Kompany watching despondently in the stands because of a touchline ban.
The Clarets did not attempt a shot on target in a match for the first time since Boxing Day and were under pressure from the first minute.
Kompany’s side have conceded 26 first-half goals in 25 games, more than any other team in the Premier League this season.
Being caught out by a long throw for Arsenal’s fifth goal and failing to track Havertz’s run into the box summed up the woeful defending that means Burnley – seven points from safety – are fighting against the odds to remain in the division.
To compound their misery, midfielder Aaron Ramsey was stretchered off after suffering a seemingly serious knee injury and requiring oxygen in the 63rd minute.
Super Eagles move up 14 places in latest FIFA ranking
The Super Eagles are now 14 places higher in the latest FIFA ranking following a great showing at the just-concluded 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Nigeria lost to Cote d’Ivoire in the final of the competition concluded last weekend and have deservedly climbed up the FIFA ladder after that impeccable showing.
“Indeed, across the two continents, no fewer than six teams have scaled ten places or more. Amongst the African sides, Côte d’Ivoire (39th, up 10) reap the rewards of their continental triumph on home soil, secured following an eventful tournament campaign,” FIFA wrote on its website while announcing the latest ranking.
“Beaten finalists Nigeria (28th, up 14) make significant strides but are no match for the Angola side they ousted in the last eight (93rd, up 24), who are the biggest climbers in the latest instalment of the global ranking.”
The latest move makes the Super Eagles Africa’s number three team only behind Morocco (who are 12th) and Senegal, who are ranked 17th.
Nigeria displaced Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, who had a poor outing at the AFCON, to make Africa’s top three.
Meanwhile, Argentina maintained the top spot on the global scene and are followed by France and England.
Belgium, Brazil, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Croatia in that order, complete the top 10 best teams in the world.
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