The Home-based Super Eagles will tomorrow tread tackles with host Morocco in the final match of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
The two finalists will be playing for their first CHAN title as they are yet to taste glory in this biennial championship designed exclusively for players playing in their domestic leagues.
While Morocco were dominant in the first semi-final against neighbours Libya in a 3-1 win, a victory that came in extra time, the Super Eagles narrowly survived in the hands of the Desert Hawks of Sudan with a 1-0 win.
Although they have reached the final, to most Nigerians, the Eagles have been anything but convincing in their performance.
It will be recalled that the only match that the Eagles appeared to have dominated was their final group match against debutants Equatorial Guinea, yet they sweated. Before the goals came, they had ‘tortured’ their fans with series of misses.
In their opening match, the Eagles laboured to 0-0 draw with Rwanda, the same night that Libya defeated Equatorial Guinea 3-0. Against Libya, after squandering so many chances, the Eagles managed to win 1-0.
Their victory over Libya proved useful as they eventually topped group C with seven points to reach the quarter-finals.
It is too soon for Nigerian fans to forget the hypertensive moments they endured as the Eagles battled Angola in the quarter-final match that dragged to extra time.
It took the divine grace of God for the Eagles to return from the dead to win 2-1. The Angolans who had denied Nigeria the ticket to the 2006 FIFA World Cup were running away with 1-0 victory before Anthony Okpotu struck in the last minute of added time to take the match to extra time.
Akwa United’s man, Gabriel Okechukwu who was making his first appearance as a substitute emerged as the hero when he scored the winner in the second half of the extra time for the Eagles to reach the semi-finals.
Thus, when they were to meet Sudan in the semi-finals, most Nigerians expressed doubts about the ability of the Eagles to surmount the hurdle of the Desert Hawks who had eliminated highly rated Zambia in their quarter-final match.
Just as feared, it was a ding-dong affair when the Eagles clashed with Sudan in the semi-final on Wednesday.
Although Okechukwu benefitted from Anthony Okpotu’s flick to score in the 16th minute of the match, the Eagles couldn’t go ahead to score what Nigerians call ‘assurance’ goal.
Things eventually turned against them when they were reduced to ten men after MFM’s midfielder, Ifeanyi Ifeanyi got the marching orders for a rash tackle on an opponent in the 57th minute.
Indeed Nigeria’s saving grace was Plateau United’s goalkeeper Dele Ajiboye who replaced Ikechukwu Ezenwa who was injured in the 15th minute.
He literally stood between the Desert Hawks and victory as he made wonderful saves as the Sudanese continued to use their numerical advantage to bombard the Eagles defence in search of equaliser.
In the end, the Eagles survived to reach their first finals since the championship commenced in 2011. Their best outing was third place finish when they debuted in 2014 in South Africa.
This time, they have gone a step further and Nigerians are expectant. The general conclusion is that having reached this stage, the Eagles should not over rely on luck for victory.
Winning their first CHAN title won’t be an easy task for the Super Eagles. This is because apart from the fact that they will enjoy every available home advantage, the Atlas Lions are playing fantastic football.
Unlike the Eagles who laboured hard to win almost all their matches, the North Africans have shown champions stuff right with the way they calmly dispatched opponents.
In their danger man Ayoub El Kaabi who is the leading goal scorer with eight goals, the Lions have been tipped by many to win their first CHAN title.
However, they will definitely have their hands full with opponents who are unpredictable and can shock them right in front of their vociferous fans at the Stade Mohammed V, Casablanca.
One thing that nobody can take away from the present Super Eagles is their fight-to-finish spirit. They may not be technically sound but they have exhibited enormous strength of character.
Twice they came from behind in the most bizarre manner to win. This has shown tenacity of character which the Atlas Lions must be ready to deal with.
However, if they are to win tomorrow, the Eagles must avoid profligacy which they are now known for. These were the words of former international, Garba Lawal when he spoke to SHOT.
He said against Morocco, the Eagles must take their chances and avoid defensive slips as was witnessed in their semi-final match against Sudan.
“The Eagles stand a chance against Morocco in the final but they must not be wasteful again. They hardly convert their chances and I think this a problem they must correct.
“They will be up against a team that is technically good so they must re-double their efforts. They cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes,” he advised.
Thus, the Eagles will have to heed this advice, if they are to pocket the $20,000 winning bonus promised them by the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF.
Although he has played with so much passion, coming back to help with defensive duties before going back to strike, Anthony Okpotu is expected to be more accurate in front of goal tomorrow.
Agreed he has not enjoyed the right supplies, he must make the best use of every opportunity that would come his way.
His combination upfront with a more experienced and mature Okechukwu has proved more effective than when he was paired with an inexperienced and exuberant Sunday Faleye.
Furthermore, towering defender Stephen Eze has proved to be the pillar in the defence but he is expected to show more composure and tactical discipline.
There is danger in his adventurous play as often times he is seen sprinting back to his position whenever an attacking move fails. He must be told to be more concerned with marshalling the defence.
It is expected that Ezenwa will return for the final but even if he doesn’t, Ajiboye whose cat-like reflexes produced at least three superlative saves against Sudan should do the job between the sticks for the Eagles.
When the two countries met in the quarter-finals of the 2014 CHAN in South Africa, the Super Eagles defeated the Atlas Lions 4-3 to reach the semi-finals.
Therefore, tomorrow’s final is the right setting for the Atlas Lions to get back their pound of flesh from the Super Eagles.
However, in as much as the North Africans are favourites, the Super Eagles with their never say-die spirit may just spring a surprise and return home with the trophy.