Victor Osimhen’s Nigeria stand in the way of Côte d’Ivoire in Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final, as the tournament hosts aim to complete the most remarkable of turnarounds by lifting the trophy.
The most thrilling AFCON in recent memory concludes at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium, on the dusty outskirts of Abidjan, with a heavyweight showdown between two West African footballing powerhouses.
Eleven years after they were last crowned continental champions, Nigeria are hoping to win their fourth title, and in doing so match the tally of old rivals Ghana.
Côte d’Ivoire, meanwhile, will join the Super Eagles on three titles if they become the first host nation to lift the trophy since Egypt beat them on penalties in 2006.
Their journey just to get to this stage has been unlike almost anything that has come before in the history of major international tournament football.
After beating Guinea-Bissau 2-0 in the opening game on January 13, things began to go awry when they lost 1-0 to Nigeria in a close-fought encounter five days later.
The Elephants then found themselves on the brink of becoming just the second Cup of Nations hosts in the last 30 years to be eliminated in the group stage after a humiliating 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea.
It was their heaviest ever home defeat, and it cost veteran French coach Jean-Louis Gasset his job.
Yet a combination of favourable results elsewhere allowed them to squeeze through to the last 16 as the last of the four best third-placed teams.
‘LIKE A DREAM‘
Former player Emerse Fae became interim coach after an audacious attempt to hire Herve Renard on a short-term deal failed, and Côte d’Ivoire ousted holders Senegal on penalties in his first game.
A crazy quarter-final followed, with the 10-man Ivorians beating Mali 2-1 thanks to a winning goal in added time in extra time.
In his first start of the tournament after injury, Sebastien Haller then scored the only goal in a 1-0 defeat of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the last four, taking Côte d’Ivoire into their first final since they won the trophy under Renard in 2015.
“It’s like a dream, when you go back two weeks to the defeat here against Equatorial Guinea,” said Fae after the semi-final.
“It was hard then to imagine that we might qualify for the final of our own AFCON.”
Yet they have done it, and so like in their last final appearance in 2013 — when they defeated Burkina Faso in South Africa — Nigeria will play in the tournament’s deciding game against a side they also faced in the group stage.
That 1-0 win over the Ivorians, when captain William Troost-Ekong netted a penalty, was what kickstarted the Super Eagles’ campaign here.
They had come into the tournament hampered by a succession of injury call-offs, and with a coach who had been the target of stinging criticism back home.
A 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea in their first game did little to ease the pressure on veteran Portuguese tactician Jose Peseiro, but a switch to a three-man central defence paid dividends against the Ivorians and he has stuck with that system since.
As a result, Nigeria recorded four straight wins — all with clean sheets — on the way to the semi-final, when they beat South Africa on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
Napoli star Osimhen, the reigning African footballer of the year, is now just one game away from being an AFCON winner in what has often been a frustrating tournament for the 25-year-old.
He struck 10 times in qualifying, but has not scored in Ivory Coast since netting in the opening game, although he has had three goals disallowed.
Nevertheless, Osimhen’s tireless performances have been eye-catching, and in any case the masked striker has always insisted that collective glory is all that matters.
“I always say this — it has been with me since growing up — I need to win something with the Super Eagles,” Osimhen told broadcaster Canal Plus Afrique.
“Football is one of the only things that brings joy to the country. We know a lot of people have had to work so hard just to be able to watch this game.
“I am really happy that we are able to put smiles on their faces. Now we have one more final to go and we will give everything to try to win it.”