The Sunday Mail
… hosts Cote d’Ivoire take on Nigeria
Images of Cote d’Ivoire fans celebrating their team’s progress through the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations have made global headlines this past month, but Kolo Toure believes the hosts’ fortunes changed when Elephants fans protested in anger earlier in the tournament.
Shortly after the country’s heaviest ever home — and Nations Cup — defeat, when losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea in their final group game, Ivorian supporters booed inside the Abidjan arena before some vandalised buses and other property in scenes that were widely condemned.
Nonetheless, former Arsenal and Manchester City defender Toure says a result that left the Elephants on a precipice, one they eventually retreated from after squeezing through as a best third-placed side, lies behind their place in today’s final against Nigeria.
“That loss was a big wake-up call for the players because they saw that fans in the country were really, really angry,” the 42-year-old told the World Football at AFCON podcast.
“A few things happened and since that game, I think the players realised how important the tournament was for the country.
“That was a turning point,” he said.
Part of the second — and last — Ivorian team to lift the trophy, when defeating Ghana on penalties in the 2015 final, Toure considers the replacement of French coach Jean-Louis Gasset with Emerse Fae to be the other key moment for a side that has been on a rollercoaster ride.
Midfielder Fae — who has overseen knock-out wins against Senegal, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo — played in the same team as centre-back Toure for many years, even contesting the 2006 final, which the Ivorians lost to host nation Egypt on spot-kicks.
“Emerse is a great guy — he knows the culture of the country, was inside the team and knows the mentality,” Toure explained.
“He has brought discipline both on and off the pitch.
“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.
“Since taking over, he has also brought back some competition — making big changes when bringing in Jean-Michael Seri and Odilon Kossounou in the last 16, and those two were really good against Senegal.”
Fae rang the changes against the defending champions, selecting Seri, Bayer Leverkusen defender Kossounou and the evergreen Max-Alain Gradel for their first starts while dropping Kessie to the bench.
The bold changes restored structure to a side galvanised by their new manager, who made full use of his bench from where former AC Milan and Barcelona star Kessie rose to score two decisive penalties.
Full of praise for his country’s Nations Cup hosting, which has seen at least US$1 billion invested by the government, Toure also lauded Cote d’Ivoire’s fans, who have recently backed their team with a feverish intensity.
“The fans are unbelievable, and you can see that the country is passionate about this Nations Cup,” he rallied.
“Some of them don’t have food or a clean place to sleep but when the football comes, they forget their daily struggles and they expect the players to give 150 percent.
“As long as you give everything, they have no problem with you.
“If Cote d’Ivoire win the match, it’s going to be double the celebration of 2015!”
If the Ivorians are to claim a third title, with their first success in 1992 also coming against Ghana, they must avenge a 1-0 defeat by Nigeria in the group stage, when Toure feels his nation failed tactically.
“Nigeria changed their shape, playing a 5-4-1 defensively and a 3-4-3 offensively, which really disturbed us. We never found the solution to stop them hitting us on the counterattack,” he said.
“With Victor Osimhen up front, and Moses Simon and Ademola Lookman (out wide), they are really dangerous in transition.
“We need speed at the back because as soon as Nigeria get the ball, they will look for Osimhen, who is super quick — he may have scored only once so far, but what he brings to that team is incredible,” said the former Arsenal man.
Nigeria, meanwhile, have proved all their doubters wrong with their Nations Cup displays, according to former Super Eagles striker Brown Ideye. Ranked 42nd in the world and sixth in Africa, not much was expected from Jose Peseiro’s team after some underwhelming results in late 2023.
“I never believed in this team. Their form before the tournament and injuries to key players gave no one any hope,” Ideye, a Nations Cup winner with Nigeria in 2013, told BBC Sport Africa.
“They have proved a lot of us wrong by reaching the final. I’m really proud of them.”
The three-time champions beat South Africa on penalties to reach the final at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium, where they will renew their rivalry with the Ivorians after William Troost-Ekong’s second-half penalty gave Nigeria victory on January 18.
“The final will be different but the players must be calm,” says Ideye, who played against a Didier Drogba-led Ivorian side at the 2013 Nations Cup.
“There will be orange everywhere at the stadium. The Super Eagles must not be scared. It will be difficult, but these players have shown they understand what is at stake.”
Today’s meeting will be the eighth Nations Cup finals clash — but a first title decider — between the West African rivals, with Nigeria boasting four wins and a draw from their previous outings.
Two-time champions Cote d’Ivoire will become the first host nation to play in the final of their own tournament since Egypt in 2006.
Nigeria’s campaign started with a 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea, with Napoli striker Osimhen heading home the Super Eagles’ equaliser.
Since then, the current African Footballer of the Year has failed to add more goals, despite his impressive work rate, which has resulted in an assist and two penalties won for his team.
“Osimhen cannot do it all alone. The change in formation has not really helped him get chances,” former West Bromwich Albion and Dynamo Kyiv forward Brown said.
“The 5-4-1 formation can be very tiring for the lone striker.”
Unlucky to have had two goals disallowed by VAR, Osimhen is expected to lead Nigeria’s title quest today, while Atalanta winger Lookman is their top scorer with three goals.
“Lookman has been a great back-up plan. He has had an amazing tournament,” Brown added.
“The whole country (Nigeria) needs this trophy. It will bring so much joy to us.”
Severely criticised for the team’s poor form before the Nations Cup, coach Peseiro has now been heralded for turning the team around at a crucial time.
The Super Eagles have scored in all their six matches, while keeping four clean sheets and conceding just twice.
“If Peseiro wins the Afcon, he should continue,” suggests Ideye of the Portuguese, who is yet to commit his future beyond the Nations Cup.
“If you are not good, you can’t win a tournament as big as the Afcon,” he said. — BBC.