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Scoring goals in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of a significant global competition typically results in strikers entering the final with high confidence and the belief that they will lead their team to victory. This is especially true when the center-forward has been one of the top scorers in the sport for the past few years. However, for Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, there may be a lingering feeling of frustration, annoyance, and unfulfillment. He may feel that he has been hindered by small margins and has not been able to showcase his explosive abilities to the fullest.
During the Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal match against Angola, he scored a strong header that landed in the top corner, past the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand. However, after a VAR review, it was determined that he was slightly offside. In the following round against South Africa, Osimhen’s late tap-in was also disallowed in a controversial decision. Instead, a penalty was awarded to the opposing team, leading to extra time and a shootout, ultimately resulting in Nigeria advancing to the next round.
Despite Osimhen’s previous struggles with full fitness during the competition and the challenges he has faced from opposing players, Nigeria’s strong defense has not always allowed him to showcase his attacking abilities. As a result, the Napoli striker has been somewhat hindered in this tournament, and now he faces his last opportunity to make an impact against the team that is hosting the event and has a significant storyline.
Ivory Coast have had the most improbable run; minutes away from a group stage exit, they sacked the manager, regrouped and went again under caretaker Emerse Fae. Late comebacks, stunning winners, penalties… everything has gone their way since and the 1-0 win over DR Congo put them in a first final in almost a decade.
Furthermore, the team has progressed from being a source of shame for the nation, to regaining respect, and ultimately becoming heroes in a matter of weeks.
After winning the Afcon in 2015, Ivory Coast has not been able to qualify for the last two World Cup tournaments in Russia and Qatar. Additionally, they have not been able to advance past the quarter-finals in three consecutive Afcon appearances, despite having talented players such as Wilfried Bony, Jean Michael Seri, Salomon Kalou, Wilfried Zaha, and Eric Bailly.
The magnitude of this year’s comeback becomes even more impressive, and winning the final would tie them with three Afcon victories alongside their rival, Nigeria. However, in sports, and particularly in football, fairytales don’t always have a Hollywood-worthy ending that seems both incredible and believable at the same time.
If that is indeed the case this time, it is highly likely that Nigeria’s main player will take on the role of disrupting the party. Although he has only scored one goal in the tournament so far, he has played a significant part in the Super Eagles’ progress, providing an assist for Ademola Lookman’s first goal against Cameroon. However, it could also be argued that Osimhen should be considered for top scorer, but he has not lived up to expectations. He currently has the same number of expected goals as Emilio Nsue, who leads the tournament with five goals, and has missed the most golden opportunities at the Afcon with five. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Osimhen has won both of Nigeria’s penalties, which were scored by defender William Troost-Ekong instead of Osimhen himself.
Despite being an elite striker, Osimhen values teamwork and puts in the effort both on and off the field for his teammates. He is not only focused on scoring goals but also willing to take on challenges and show bravery for those wearing the same shirt as him. However, such opportunities do not present themselves frequently.
It’s 11 years since Nigeria were in an Afcon final, Osimhen then still two years away from starring at the U17 World Cup. Goals and awards have been coming his way for years, but senior titles – trophies – eluded him until only last season when he fired Napoli to a spectacular Serie A success. Less than a year on, he now has the chance to add international honours to his legacy, perhaps leaving him free to decide his future at ease in summer with mission accomplished, for now, on both fronts.
The hosts in Abidjan will be searching for a hero to call their own on Sunday. The potential candidates have been diverse since the knockout rounds began. From Franck Kessie’s successful penalty kick to Simon Adingra’s unexpected equalizer, and Fae’s ability to unite a struggling and aimless team, Ivory Coast’s advancement has been a collective effort. If they are able to win the championship on their home turf, one of them will surely become the nation’s newest beloved figure.
However, Nigeria, especially Osimhen, will be determined to disrupt that specific celebration.
The match between Nigeria and Ivory Coast will be broadcasted on Sky Sports Premier League, Football, and Main Event on Sunday, February 11th at 7:30pm, with kick off at 8pm.