With a bronze medal in 2014 being Nigeria’s best performance in African Nations Championship, the home-based Super Eagles would be hoping to emerge winner in competition for the first time as they play host, Morocco in the final tomorrow.
Both teams came through tough semifinals on Wednesday evening, with Morocco needed extra time to overcome a resilient Libya 3-1 in their North African derby in Casablanca, while Nigeria edged Sudan 1-0 in a hard-fought clash in Marrakech.
The Atlas Lions and the Super Eagles are bidding to become the fourth different winners of the Chan, joining the honours board of DR Congo (champions in 2009 and 2016), Tunisia (2014) and Libya (2014).
Morocco coach Jamal Sellami paid tribute to his team after their victory, which was inspired by a brace from striker Ayoub El Kaabi. He has now netted eight times in this Chan tournament.
“I congratulate my players, who made a great match despite the difficulties they faced,” said Sellami after the clash with Libya. We were opposed to an organised selection that caused us a lot of problems. The fatigue of the Libyan players has done us a great service,” he admitted. “No matter who our opponent is in the final, what matters is the state of my players.”
As for Nigeria, they have come good on their coach Salisu Yusuf’s promise that they would reach the final of the competition, with Gabriel Okechukwu’s goal securing victory over Sudan.
“Our target is the trophy, no less,” said the Nigeria coach, who added: “Reaching the final alone will mean history for this team. The final of the African Nations Championship beckons and we will go out there with all that we have got.”
In head-to-head statistics, Morocco and Nigeria have met in 12 official matches according to Fifa’s database. Each side has claimed five wins, while two games have been drawn.
The teams’ most recent meeting was in the 2014 edition of the CHAN, with the Super Eagles claiming a thrilling 4-3 victory after extra time in the teams’ quarterfinal clash in Cape Town. The West African came from 0-3 down to win the match.
Meanwhile, the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, Amaju Pinnick has charged the home-based Eagles to win the trophy for President Muhammadu Buhari.
Pinnick met with the players and commended them after the win over Sudan in Marrakech on Wednesday. But the big message was that they could not afford to go this far only to go down to the host country.
“On behalf of the NFF Executive Committee and the entire Nigerian Football family, I praise you for your tremendous efforts in getting this far in the face of numerous challenges. You are great ambassadors of our dear nation.
“However, the truth is that you have raised the expectations of the government and people of Nigeria back home, and now you just have to do all that it will take to win the Cup. President Muhammadu Buhari) has been following with keen interest your campaign here, and the only way to compensate him for his support and encouragement is to go back home with the CHAN trophy.”
Nigeria drew with Rwanda in their opening match in Tangier, but has since achieved victories over 2014 champions Libya, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Sudan to qualify for the final.
Yet, they would start as underdogs against the Atlas Lions, who apart from playing on the too –familiar turf of their main temple, have logged an impressive 12 goals so far and are egged by the whole of Morocco.
Nigeria’s Head Coach, Salisu Yusuf, reacts to that: “Every team is beatable. If we do the right things, we will beat Morocco.”
Yusuf has coped commendably with set –backs in this tournament, having to think up the right formula to come back from deficit levels against Equatorial Guinea and Angola, and to re-jig his squad after several first team players were knocked out by injury before the semi-final against Sudan. Even therein, he had to strategize for resistance against Sudan after they had to play half an hour with 10 men against 11.
Going into Sunday’s Final, former Nigeria international Yusuf was tested further with injury to goalkeeper and captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa in the semi final ruling him out of the big clash, and 45,000 home fans cheering on the Atlas Lions.
“In football, you have to be prepared for anything. We have managed a few situations through the campaign and still have to manage some going into the final match. I believe we will cope well and overcome.”
While the Super Eagles must beware of ambitious Atlas Lions in the shape of eight –goal Ayoub El Kaabi, Walid El Karti, Zakaria Hadraf, Salaheddine Saidi, Ismail El Haddad and Abdeljalil Jbria that Coach Jamal Sellami will send out, the Lions themselves have to worry about in –form Nigerian striker Gabriel Okechukwu, as well as Anthony Okpotu, Dayo Ojo, Rabiu Ali, Osas Okoro and Augustine Oladapo.
Youth and Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, will lead the Nigerian support at the Stade Mohamed.
Both teams have an extra motivation in form of a $1.25million winner’s prize. The runner –up will go home with $750,000.